LOUISE PROUTY '02
W. Eugene Smith
Eugenia Parry Janis
The Art Department
Jewett Arts Center
Addison House Publishers
Danbury, New Hampshire
During the month of April 1975, the following people spent a day at
April 7 John Morris, former picture editor, N.Y.T. Pictures New
York Times, News Service
April 9 Paul Schuster Taylor, economist, co-author with
Dorothea Lange of An American Exodus
April 11 Gjon Mili, Life magazine photographer
April 14 Robert Frank, photographer, filmmaker
April 15 Frederick Wiseman, documentary filmmaker
April 16 John Szarkowski, director, Department of Photography,
Museum of Modern Art, New York
April 18 W. Eugene Smith, photo-essayist
April 21 Susan Sontag, critic, filmmaker
April 23 Irving Penn, fashion/portrait photographer
April 25 Robert Coles, author and research psychiatrist, Harvard
Their visits constituted a series of ten symposia called Photography
within the Humanities which inquired into the functions of photog-
Copyright @ 1977 by Wellesley College. Library of Congress Catalogue Card No.
76-051600. ISBN-o-89169-013-1. Type set by Dumar Typesetting, Dayton, Ohio.
Printed by Foremost Lithographers, Providence, R.I. Designed by Carl F. Zahn.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any
electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval
systems without permission in writing from the copyright holder, except by a
reviewer who may quote brief paragraphs in a review.
To the memory of Walker Evans
November 3, 1903-April 10, 1975
Acknowledgments The symposia originated in a college art department which has
wholeheartedly supported the formal study of the history of photog-
raphy since 1969 and the teaching of photographic practice since
1973. We wish to thank all our colleagues in the art department at
Wellesley for their interest and encouragement. Peter Fergusson
was a constant advisor. Ann Gabhart installed the exhibition of 100
photographs chosen by the participants. The task of locating and
assembling these images was greatly eased by the efforts of Richard
Avedon, Duane Michals, Yoichi Okamoto, Alex Harris, Gjon Mili,
Jennifer Ettling of Zipporah Films, Patricia McCabe, Leslie Teicholz,
John J. Fletcher of Compix, U.P.I. News Pictures, Robert Sobieszek,
International Museum of Photography, Rochester, John Szarkowski,
Patricia M. Walker, Department of Photography of the Museum of
Modern Art, Therese Heyman, Curator of Photographs, Oakland
Museum, Barbara Norfleet, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts,
Davis Pratt, Curator of Photography, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard
University, Marge Neikrug, Neikrug Galleries, Inc., Harry Lunn and
Maurizia Grosman, Lunn Gallery-Graphics International Ltd., and
the Witkin Gallery.
Maria Morris, Hannah B. Bruce, Time-Life Picture Agency, Paul
Clifford, Wide World Photos, Inc., Frank Wolfe, Lyndon Baines John-
son Library and Magnum Photos, Inc. helped to make certain addi-
tional pictures available for the source book.
For help in the planning stages we would like to thank Kenworth
Moffett. For invaluable assistance during the symposia we would
also like to thank Carla Mathes Woodward, Peteris Bite, Marjorie A.
Dings, Elizabeth P. Richardson, Ruth B. Wilson, Muriel Crampton,
William McKenzie Woodward, Rosalyn Gerstein and Carl Sesto.
Catharine H. Allen coordinated the whole series. Without her expert
organizing skills, it is certain that the events would never have tran-
spired so smoothly.
With Wellesley students it is possible to accomplish practically
anything: they participated in all phases of the events, produced the
tapes and transcribed them. Thanks are due Sasha Norkin, Jessine
Monaghan, Liz de Tuerk, Rebecca Dragiff , Deborah Keith, Linda
Mahoney, and especially Lesley Baier and Lillian Hsu who gave
generous and untiring assistance in the final stages of the book's
Finally, we owe our greatest debt to the speakers and confess sel-
fishly that the whole undertaking was the best way we could think of
to know them better.
Resources for the symposia in 1975, and for the production of the
source book in 1976 were awarded in two separate grants by the
Northeastern Pooled Common Fund, established by Mr. and Mrs.
George de Menil (Lois Pattison, Wellesley College Class of 1960). We
gratefully acknowledge the Fund's generous support and the sym-
pathetic interest of its founders at every stage of the project.
Introduction We are all possessors of a highly sophisticated form of visual literacy,
largely influenced by photographs and more recently by television.
Strangely enough, an outstanding characteristic of this visual lit-
eracy is our lack of consciousness about how it works. We really have
not begun to consider how, why or to what extent photographs move
us, teach us or force us to make choices and form judgments. Speci-
fically, we do not yet fully understand how the particular physical
nature of its picture making system affects the visual appearance of
a photograph and thereby alters the information it contains.
Photographs offer a version of reality as subject to critical inter-
pretation as that offered by any other medium. Contrary to the nine-
teenth century conviction, photographs are not equal to the truth;
they bear only partial truths. Photographs "masquerade as 'it-ness,' "
to quote an apt formulation. They carry information clothed in a cur-
ious visual organization. This visual organization or syntax affects
our view of the world enormously. For as members of a photographic
community, we are receiving thousands of photographic signals
daily. Also, much of what we believe to be true about the past one
hundred and thirty-seven years has been inculcated through
Until recently, many focused inquiries about photography have
been devoted to its relation to the arts. Because photographs are pic-
tures with a special formal organization, it has been natural to link
their production to art making. A favorite issue, which still has not
died, for example, is whether photography can be an art at all. By
now general consensus says that photography seems to be capable
of artistic expression when it is practiced by artists. Another view
holds that the question is beside the point: the history of photography
and the accumulation of photographic images since 1839 has dem-
onstrated that photography involved itself in much more than aes-
thetic claims. It took root in every aspect of life. To begin to under-
stand the medium fully we must examine its role systematically and
include it within the study of the humanities.
This was the basic idea behind the creation of the series of sym-
posia called Photography within the Humanities held at Wellesley
College in the Spring of 1975. While there have been countless con-
ferences on photography which re-examined aesthetic and technical
questions, never before had there been an attempt to explore photog-
raphy's function or its far-reaching effects on our experience — on
the way we gather information and the quality of that information.
Our primary aim in these symposia was to expand our understand-
ing of photography beyond the realm of the art museum by asking
questions about the medium which would promote a recognition of
its connection to other related fields, and having done this, would
articulate that connection.
The symposia's activities centered around ten individuals who
regard photography as a significant part of their work or for whom
photography is important enough to engage their critical attention.
Our choice of speakers was based on their skill at making, using or
thinking about photographic pictures and their ability to speak
about it to others. The main objective was to bring about a series of
dialogues about photography as a documentary tool by having ac-
cess to people whose experiences had led them to opinions about the
particular kind of success or failure photography has had in its many
Between April 7 and April 25 of 1975, each of the ten participants
came to Wellesley College and spent the day. They met with stu-
dents in informal seminars during the morning and afternoon and
gave a public lecture in the evening. Each speaker was asked for a
list of ten photographs which would best represent his or her point
of view. The 100 photographs, assembled in a major exhibition in the
main gallery of the Jewett Arts Center, became a core of images
around which discussions might take place. Moreover, they provided
the speakers with their only access to the views of the others who had
It seemed important to have the participants appear one at a time.
Although shop talk between professionals on a panel is entertaining
and even instructive, we were not interested in collisions between
celebrities on a stage. Instead we calculated another kind of event,
of one experienced and opinionated guest appearing after another,
each of whom would bring a different attitude toward his or her
work. This left the burden of the cross-fertilization of ideas on the
students, who, fresh from the visit of one speaker, were soon as-
saulted by the next. Being in possession of the whole picture (none
of the speakers stayed to hear the others) gave the students a sense
of equal footing with speakers who might have seemed overwhelm-
ing. We could not anticipate the extent to which the ten participants
would refer to one another. The same story related by an editor and
later by an artist was, in the opinion of the students, embarrassing
Most of the participants simply spoke about what they do when
they work and related their thoughts about their work. On the whole,
this occurred not in long, reasoned expositions but as little talks
about fortuitous encounters; what was said, what was once thought,
what changed. These accounts, with no overriding design except
that they make up the life of a professional, were undeniably the
most memorable and possibly the most valuable parts of the meet-
ings. A striking number of new details about photographic experi-
ences emerged which altered profoundly the standard information
about many well-known photographs and photographic careers.
Similarly, as with all direct confrontations with people known
only from afar by reputation, many popular notions about them
were corrected. In the course of a day, it was possible to concentrate
on one life and one career, to understand a reputation by seeing how
it had developed depending on circumstances and personal choices.
Well-respected models of photographic achievement were seen in an
entirely new light. For the first time, it seemed possible to understand
what Dorothea Lange's and Paul Taylor's An American Exodus,
produced forty years ago, meant then, and what it still might mean
today in the context of the estimated millions of photographs docu-
menting America made since. In the same way, W. Eugene Smith's
classic Life magazine stories were reviewed in relation to the recently
published Minamata. It became clear that Smith's career had a com-
pletely comprehensible evolution.
Throughout the sessions, certain names seemed to surface more
than others. Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Diane Arbus were
discussed by nearly every speaker. Every speaker had a different
approach to the issue of meaning in a photograph. The achievements
of some photographers such as Walker Evans, Smith or Lange were
held up as rebuttals to Son tag's moral criticism against photographic
practice in America as a process of appropriating reality (picture
taking) , rather than one of creatively generating new realities with
a camera (picture making).
The ordering of the speakers was based on preconceived ideas of
what might transpire. We hoped Robert Coles would apply the ad-
mirable plain-spoken perception of social problems, so lucidly ex-
pressed in his books, to the questions which had accumulated dur-
ing the symposia. We hoped that as the last speaker, he would, in
essence, pick up the pieces. We were not prepared for his refusal to
be locked into the role we had expected him to play.
Few of the speakers, in fact, addressed themselves directly to the
theme of the symposia. Each appeared as a self-defined primary in-
former, already involved with the problem of photography's role as
part of his or her life's work. Ultimately, in spite of our great am-
bition that the symposia provide the answers to the most penetrating
questions which might be asked about the medium, it was discov-
ered that we are still only at the early stages of our inquiry, the as-
sembling of the primary data.
Nearly everything which was said was taped in order to secure a
record of the events. The tapes were transcribed fully and the ample
manuscript is available for consultation in the Art Library of Jewett.
It was our intention to edit the transcript and publish it as a source
book for others to refer to in the future.
Editing the Transcript
The animated spirit of the exchange between the participants and
their audiences rests in the spontaneous rhythm and intonation of
speech. Translating these encounters into print (automatically ac-
complished by typing the contents of the tapes) risks the loss of this
spirit. The transcript needs no editing for the force of its energy to be
appreciated. What it lacks is coherence. Valuable ideas are buried
in repetitions, idiosyncracies of expression, interruptions, losses of
trains of thought and a thousand other obstacles that occur when
people, newly introduced, try to communicate about matters of im-
portance. We are culturally conditioned to adjust to these difficulties.
When turned into print on a page, the spoken words acquire the sus-
picious status of pseudo-literature.
As soon as we had the transcript in our hands, we realized why
other taped conferences and symposia had not been turned so readily
into edited source books. The events which in reality had proceeded
with a certain inner logic and momentum looked chaotic. We were
faced with the task of rediscovering and reconstructing what we
knew had been valuable.
In the Spring of 1976, we led a seminar of thirteen students to edit
the transcript. The students were: Cathy S. Neuren (John Morris) ,
Adrienne Schach Mitchell (Paul Taylor), Katherine Kent (GjonMili),
Judith Hirschkowitz (Robert Frank) , Michele Collias and Margue-
rite Verani (Frederick Wiseman) , Nancy Osher and Lesley Baier
(John Szarkowski) , Marianne Duffy (W. Eugene Smith) , Barbara
Clark and Anne Fougeron (Susan Sontag) , Kelley Nilson (Irving
Penn) and Susan Blumberg and Victoria Furber (Robert Coles) .
The editing sessions raised fundamental questions about the re-
lationship between real events and their translation into another me-
dium—a basic problem in the study of photography itself. The semi-
nar turned out to be about language and interpretation. How much of
the sense of the original is lost if the order of a spoken text is altered?
Often with a new ordering, it was discovered that the ideas flowed
better and had greater dramatic force. The result, though more co-
herent and in a sense more accurately representing the speaker,
often strayed from the original structure of the words on tape. Moral
problems arose concerning authenticity and the use of Active modes
to reconstruct the truth.
There was the added danger of trying to make over the speakers,
to have them correspond to an ideal of what editors, photo-journal-
ists or critics should say, by leaving out sentences or expressions
which did not fit the preconceived mold. Ultimately the authority to
accept or reject a final editing was the speaker's; every published ex-
tract appears in this source book with the speaker's approval.
The illustrations deserve some mention. Many have been re-
produced frequently and are generally well-known in America. They
were recalled repeatedly during the symposia. It was discovered
that certain photographs are regarded as crucial in forming a
pictorial tradition in contemporary American photography. The con-
tinual citation of these well-known images led to a re-examination
of their significance. It is in this spirit that we continue to reproduce
them. This is not primarily a picture book but a book of texts whose
contents are the principal attraction. For this reason all the images
reproduced follow the demands of the texts and amplify them. Con-
sidering that hundreds of camera-carrying photographers attended
the events, it was striking how few pictures were made. Even after
strenuous efforts to secure photographs of the symposia, very few
have surfaced. We thank Larry Edwards, Donald Dietz, Stephen
Frank and Linda Mahoney for allowing us to use their pictures.
In our opinion, the value of the events which took place at Welles-
ley lies in the expansion of what is considered to be general photo-
graphic knowledge. For example, the familiar American icon, Mi-
grant Mother by Dorothea Lange, was shown to have been altered to
suit widely differing purposes: commemorating the Spanish ter-
ror of 1938; illustrating the cover of a South American magazine,
Bohemia Venezolana, and providing the design for a drawing in a
Black Panthers newspaper. Classic Walker Evans photographs
compared to those by Robert Frank call attention to the lineage in
American documentary photography which they share. Thus,
rather than introducing previously undiscovered images, the
dialogues reaffirmed the far-reaching significance of what is already
acknowledged as important. It is in this sense that the content of the
discussions during the symposia may be characterized as academic.
For readers who still vividly remember the real events them-
selves, we hope that these edited extracts accurately preserve the
individuality of each speaker and the vitality of the original context.
The book offered here, however, has its own inner logic and life. Its
vitality bears little resemblance to the flavor and flow of the real
events from which it sprang. It is its own event. The printed texts are
the residue of speakers whose auras remain mysteriously intact.
This sense of aura is asserted so forcibly throughout the pages that
follow, that the source book is at the same time a collection of self-
portraits. The texts implicitly comment upon and criticize one
another and as a whole make it overwhelmingly apparent that to
discuss photographic activity is to become involved with urgent
questions of man's moral existence— his desire for knowledge, his
need for sacrament.
July 4, 1976 Eugenia Parry Janis and Wendy MacNeil
John Godfrey Morris was born Decem-
ber 7, 1916, and raised in Chicago. After
receiving his Bachelor's degree from
the University of Chicago in 1937, he
worked briefly for Time. Soon, he
moved to the Life magazine staff,
where his picture editing experience
grew through his handling of World
War II picture coverage. After the war,
Morris became Picture Editor of the
Ladies' Home Journal. In 1953, he be-
came Executive Editor of Magnum
Photos, and in 1961 he developed the
Magnum News Service. In 1962, he
opened his own "picture workshop,"
the Independent Picture Service. He
joined The Washington Post in 1964,
and later, at The New York Times, he
served as Picture Editor. In 1973, he be-
came Editor of NYT Pictures, The
Times' photo service. Now retired from
The Times, Morris lives in Manhattan
and plans to write several books based
on his experiences.
12 John Morris
I was never a photographer. I got into picture editing in college, when
I edited a monthly magazine, and there were some very good student
photographers. I got interested in pictures and my great ambition
was to join Time-Life. I joined Time-Life as an office boy, and I never
got any higher with Time. It was at Life that I worked my way up the
ladder. Writing is so much work for me that it doesn't bother me to
suppress my writing instincts in order to edit pictures. And I enjoy
working with photographers, who are really like children.
I had applied to The New York Times for a job in 1946. 1 was hired
in 1967. 1 was among the skeptics who didn't think they were seri-
ous about pictures. Clifton Daniel, who hired me, asked me what I
thought of the way The New York Times used pictures. I told him
I thought it stank. He said, "I agree with you, and that's why I'd like
you to go to work."
The Times doesn't have a really large photographic staff, and part
of the reason for that is that in their formative years — I hope they
still are — The Times was a heavy, dull-looking newspaper. I don't
think it ever was dull, but it looked dull. When I became Picture Edi-
tor of The Times in 1967, my friends would make cracks like, "Well,
Picture Editor of The Times? Do they have one?" Somebody said that
becoming the Picture Editor of The New York Times was like becom-
ing recreation director of Forest Lawn.
One of the problems for the Picture Editor of The Times is that it's
very hard to achieve the delicate intellectual balance between pic-
tures and ideas. So often the top story of the day just defies illustra-
tion. This is really one of the most critical problems in journalism.
Television really doesn't solve it either. You could make a good case
that television is not a visual medium because so much of television
is just somebody sitting and talking to the camera. There's getting
to be a terrible repetition of news on television. The competition
between television stations has been putting tremendous over-
emphasis on crime news, because it's the easiest to illustrate. So
we're getting an insatiable diet of news that really isn't all that vital
for society. The Times is trying very hard to stay with the important
news. The problem we have, however, is to attract the mass audience
of television while maintaining quality.
So few people reach out for quality journalism, and it kind of
makes me sick. Admittedly, there can be very serious intellectual
reasons for not reading The New York Times. I asked a historian with
whom I went to school, William Hardy McNeill, what he thought of
The New York Times, and he said, "John, I don't see it." I couldn't be-
lieve it. This was one of the leading historians, and he said, "I just
can't get that involved in daily events." Well, I was kind of horrified,
and yet I must be fair. He's sort of an American Toynbee. He takes an
overview which is so far beyond me. So he can say that and get away
with it. And I must confess, I probably suffer from a short view of
things, because I think I'm over-involved in daily affairs. The situa-
tion doesn't really change that much from day to day, and The Times
admittedly touches upon a lot more than anybody needs to know.
You know our slogan: "You don't have to read it all, but it's nice to
know it's all there."
The Times has been and still is very cautious about questions of
taste. The only time we use four letter words is when they're uttered
by the President of the United States. For example, you may recall a
famous picture taken by Malcolm Browne in 1965. It was the picture
13 John Morris
of the burning monk in Saigon. The New York Times did not use that
"picture for the reason that the editors thought that it was not fit for
the breakfast table. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has /
sort of a monthly newsletter, and they interviewed about a dozen edi- Y
tors around the country as to what they did with that picture. Turner
Catledge, The Times editor, simply said that it was not fit for the
breakfast table. The editor of the Syracuse newspaper said that an
editor who wouldn't use that picture wouldn't have run a story on the
A year after I came to The Times, the Eddie Adams picture of a
Saigon police chief executing a prisoner came in on the wire just be-
fore the afternoon news conference. It was obviously an historic pic-
ture, so I mentioned it at the news conference to make sure it would
get into the paper, because there were still many word-minded edi-
tors in positions of power. But the assistant managing editor was
determined to make the picture as small as possible. Fortunately a
picture came in the very same day, of an atrocity by the Vietcong to
a child, who was being carried in its mother's arms. The two pictures
were played together, which gave a feeling of balance.
The Times, unlike almost any other newspaper in the world, at-
tempts to make moral judgments on the news, and to put everything
in its proper perspective. And because The Times's front page judg-
ment may have an important effect on national policy, on the stock
market, on all kinds of things, this is a very important decision-
making process. These are value judgments, if you wish. The ques-
tion is difficult— how can we communicate a sense of decency among
people through photo- journalism?
You know, we talk about our "free world," but we have to put that /
in quotes because the free press is only as free as we can make it by
probing. A lot of people still think The New York Times is a Commu-
nist newspaper because we published the Pentagon Papers. One of
the sad things is that we didn't publish any photographs when we
ran them, which I think was a mistake. We were prepared to run
photographs on the Pentagon Papers, but it would have cost some-
where between fifty and a hundred thousand dollars for the extra
newsprint necessary. As a result, many people never even read the
Pentagon Papers. I'm not sure that many more would have read them
if there had been pictures, but I think this is one of the reasons to
run pictures in newspapers.
The immediacy of the television picture is fantastic, but television y/
just cannot be there quite as often as the still camera, partly because
it's more cumbersome. That may be changing though, because ENG,
as they call electronic news gathering, is coming in. Earlier, I cited the
Eddie Adams picture. The incident was also recorded by a television
man. I never happened to see it at the time, but some people did. But
damn it, the picture that really had the impact was the Eddie Adams
picture, because people could see it not once, but twice. They could
hold it up, and look at it. You'd have a hard time finding that TV foot-
tage, and even so, you'd see it for a few seconds and then it would be /
off. The same thing was true of the Nik Ut picture— that's of the little/
girl who was napalmed— that was also recorded on television film,
and it moved some people very much; but it's the Nik Ut picture that
has lasted in the memories of people. I really think there's something
in the preserved work, and the preserved page. And this is where a
sense of art is very important, because this is what galleries are all
14 John Morris
Malcolm Browne, flev. Quang Due, a
Buddhist monk, burns himself to death
in Saigon, Vietnam, before thousands
of onlookers to protest the alleged per-
secution of Buddhists by the Vietna-
mese government, 14 June 1963.
Horst Faas, Twelve year old Vietna-
mese girl during the battle for Dong
Xoai, hobbles to an evacuation heli-
copter, 9 December 1965.
Eddie Adams, South Vietnamese Na-
tional Police Chief Brig. Gen. Nguyen
Ngoc Loan executes a Vietcong officer
with a single pistol shot in the head,
Saigon, 1 February 1968.
Nik Ut, Napalm Victims, South Viet-
nam, Associated Press, 8 June 1972.
15 John Morris
Esther Bubley, Peggy Coleman, House-
wife, Washington Heights, New York,
from series "How America Lives,"
Ladies Home Journal, February 1950.
about. They can hold things up to look at over and over, and you can
sit on a bench and study them. But unfortunately, we don't treat the
printed page as a work of design too much. I mean, you don't hear the
word "design" around newspapers very much; you hear "make-up."
And make-up can be deadly.
As an editor, you have a responsibility to the photographer, the
reading public and yourself. Where you have problems is where
things diverge. Ideally, there shouldn't be any conflict among these
responsibilities. But as an editor, I guess you are ultimately respon-
sible to your readers. You're responsible to your collaborators in
terms of trying to be fair to them and to their work, but as an editor
you often have to make some very brutal choices between using this
photograph or that one; and it's helpful to be objective as an editor,
if possible, although it's very difficult. That's one of the reasons that
newspaper editors get callous — they make these decisions so rou-
tinely that they get to a point where they almost welcome disaster be-
cause it means that tomorrow's newspaper will sell.
I think that aesthetic judgments are extremely important in
photography, too. Aesthetic judgment is ignored too much by work-
ing journalists. That's one of the reasons we see atrocious pictures in
newspapers very routinely. There has to be a marriage between art
and journalism, between form and content, and this is the message
that was driven home very much by Cartier-Bresson, with whom I
worked a good deal. I recommend reading his statement about pho-
tography which appears in the preface to The Decisive Moment, in
which he talks about the decisive moment as the moment when form
and content achieve a kind of happy marriage. It's really a graphic
moment more than a dramatic one. In terms of human perception, I
like to edit for decisive moments. For example, twenty years ago,
when I was Picture Editor of the Ladies' Home Journal, we did a
monthly series called "How America Lives." It was a story of a differ-
Esther Bubley, Contact sheet for the
Coleman family project.
16 John Morris
ent American family each month. Now you know, one family in an
apartment house lives a lot like another one in many basic respects,
especially with Kelvinators and things. So it really took a lot of
human perception to make one story stand out from another. I used
to try to get photographers who had a rapport with a certain kind of
family. Esther Bubley, who was very good at this, was doing the story
of a New York housewife. I was looking at her contact sheets, and she
had photographed this woman making a bed. There were a number
of frames that were pretty much the same, but all of a sudden there
was one frame that was different. The only difference was that in-
stead of looking down at the bed, she raised her eyes. I noticed this,
and said to Esther, "What happened?" She said, "That's when the
baby cried." So that was the moment, you see, of her tiny crisis. And
that's when the picture was transformed into a decisive moment for
the housewife. It was just that little eye movement that made a
routine situation an interesting one. This kind of editing sensitivity
is something that we need to inculcate in a lot of newspaper people,
and for that matter, television people.
I have my problems with John Szarkowski regarding that. We
had a big fight about his show, "From the Picture Press." I happened
to hate that show because I've been working all my life to establish a
new kind of image of the press photographer, not as the slam-bang
photographer, but as the'sensitive photographer. The New York
Daily News put up the money for the show, but John was determined
it wasn't going to be a Daily News show. As it turned out, however,
most of the pictures chosen were Daily News pictures. I didn't pay
any attention to what they were picking from The Times file, so when
the show was about to be hung, John invited me over to see what they
had chosen. He left me alone in his office, where they had a mock-up
of the show on the walls. I looked around, and three-quarters of the
pictures were Daily News pictures; there was just a handful of Times
pictures. I was so upset, not because there were so few Times pictures,
but because there were any. When I saw the show, I didn't want any
part of it. When John came in and said, "What do you think of it?"
I said, "Well . . . can we get out?" He said, "What do you mean?" I said,
"Well, John, it's your show, it's not my show, and I'd rather take The
New York Times out entirely." We had quite a scene, but we're still
Well before working at The Times, I had gotten excited about the
syndication of stories; and we had started, experimentally, a thing
called the Magnum News Service, which really wasn't so much a
news service as it was a feature service. We began sending out Mag-
num stories once a month, but I wasn't content with that, so I decided
to take a flyer on my own, and founded the Independent Picture Ser-
vice, IPS. But for some reason, the stories didn't sell very well. This
picture was taken by a Swedish photographer, Lenn Brink. It shows a
Vietnamese prisoner being tortured. It's not a very pleasant picture.
This story, which came out in 1963, was published almost nowhere in
the United States, although it was sent to every major newspaper, be-
cause people didn't want to believe that the South Vietnamese em-
ployed torture so systematically.
When IPS failed, The Washington Post offered me my first news-
paper job, which was that of assistant managing editor for graphics,
in charge of their photo staff. I really had a ball down there, until they
fired me fifteen months later because we got into a big hassle one
17 John Morris
afternoon. But I really had a marvelous time, and I still love them and
they love me. And they trained me for The New York Times. At any
rate, The Post at that time did a lot of color. I'm not terribly happy
about color for a lot of reasons, in emotional terms. I remember talk-
ing with Dorothea Lange about color once. She was never comfort-
able with color, either. I don't think she used it more than a very few
times in her life. She said, "The problem with color is that it tells you
too much; it doesn't leave enough to the imagination." I think there's
something in that — it kind of tells you more than you want to know.
Whereas black and white is more of a challenge, perhaps, to the
imagination, unless you happen to be color-blind.
Anyway, on Inauguration Day in 1965, we had six different color
pages. My favorite one is an aerial shot taken the Sunday before In-
auguration Day. There had been a light snowfall in Washington. Dick
Darcey went up in a helicopter and came as close as he could. There's
a security zone around the White House — you can't fly right over it —
but he came pretty close. If you know Washington, there's the White
House toward the bottom, and the reviewing stand already set up on
Pennsylvania Avenue. And then there's the Ellipse and the Monu-
ment, and so on. Anyway, when I first showed this to my unsophisti-
cated colleagues at The Washington Post, one of them said, "But
John, there's no color in it." I said, "Come on, Ben, this is going to look
like Wedgwood when it's reproduced." The day after the Inaugura-
tion, I came to work and found a piece of Wedgwood china on my
desk. There was a note f romthe deputy managing editor, with whom
I had this argument, saying that his wife had opened the paper and
exclaimed, "Ben, it's just like Wedgwood!"
I really treated The Washington Post as an experimental news-
paper. I wish I could have experimented with it more, but The Post
was a little bit gung-ho in Vietnam in those days. This was not the
clash that took me out of that job, because that was not an ideological
clash; however, I became increasingly concerned about the Ameri-
can involvement in the war.
My Lai is a case in point, and one which presents a very interest-
ing story in terms of journalistic responsibility. The kid who made
these, Ron Haeberle, suppressed them himself for a long time. He
used to show them to women's clubs in Shaker Heights, and things
like that, but he was afraid of the story, as a lot of people were. I've
talked with Peter Arnett, who is one of the most capable correspon-
dents. Peter was the AP bureau chief in Saigon, a really first-rate
journalist. He was there at the time of My Lai. When we talked about
why the press corps never knew of it at the time, he said, "Well, the
problem was that there were just so many different directions you
could go, and to the Army this was no big deal, you know." If My Lai
was no big deal, there were probably many other things of similar
scope, although not necessarily the same number of people were in-
volved. It's sad but true that you can believe the worst of a lot of
American behavior in Vietnam. I begin to sound unpatriotic when I
talk this way, but I thought it was kind of my patriotic duty to try to
make people see it differently. At any rate, that's a long preamble to
telling you about the story of the My Lai pictures and The New York
Mr. Haeberle finally surfaced after the CBS interview with Calley.
He got very bold and went to The Cleveland Plain Dealer, trying to
make some money. He offered the pictures to The Cleveland Plain
Dealer for nothing, if they would publish them. They checked them
Dick Darcey, Aerial View of Washing-
ton, Inauguration Day. 1965. Courtesy
of John Morris.
18 John Morris
Ron Haeberle, My Lai Massacre, 16
out, and they checked out. So The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran them,
but big, one day. Then Haeberle had them copyrighted, and flew
to New York with his friend, a journalist named Eszterhas. They
wanted to make $100,000. 1 didn't mind their making money; I felt
that the pictures were important to be seen. But they got all involved
in a hassle with Life. Life magazine wanted the story but they wanted
it on their terms. Then some people, notably The New York Times,
offered Haeberle some money for just one photograph. We thought
one was enough, from our standpoint, to document the tragedy. So
we dickered with Haeberle, but he wanted an incredible amount of
money. We said that we'd help him make a lot of money, but we
couldn't pay him a lot of money. The New York Post decided that
these pictures really belonged to the taxpayers anyway, because
Haeberle had taken them as a soldier, so they just went ahead and
ran them. Then we got tired of dickering with Haeberle, and we also
ran one without his permission. He's never come around since with
his hat in his hand. We didn't play it sensationally; this is actually
page three of The New York Times. It was run very sadly, just as a
document of what everybody was talking about. Life followed up the
next week with a color layout, which was their way of doing it.
Another example of journalistic responsibility is George Strock's
picture of Buna Beach, taken in New Guinea for Life. I think it is one
of the most tragic pictures of World War II. It was taken in defiance
of censorship. One of the rules of war is that you don't show your own
dead; you don't want to show you're losing, especially to the enemy.
But at the same time, this is an important picture. Strock, I think,
came all the way back to Washington to fight the censors on it, there-
by sort of breaking the house rules. It is kind of a landmark picture.
Life had the guts to publish it, and it's sort of the way war is. I once
wrote a piece about war photography called "The Smell of Death."
Unless you have known dead men well enough to smell them — it's the
most God-awful stench you can imagine — you haven't experienced
19 John Morkis
How can you stop a war? Can you stop it with pictures? The big
problem with the Vietnam War is that the picture taking didn't
really begin early enough in a serious way. I wrote an article about
this for Harper's magazine a couple of years ago. It was about the
whole responsibility of the press in terms of the picture coverage of
the war, particularly the Vietnam War. In it I pointed out that the
early stages of the war, and American bombing, which was top sec-
ret, were suppressed in terms of picture coverage. We can shed a lot
of tears about the orphans now, but the first American serviceman
who died in Vietnam was just a paragraph. There was no photograph
made of that man.
Now we've had a lot of discussion today, in the seminars, about
what one's responsibility is in terms of war picture coverage. God
knows, I wish I could give you some answers. I've thought a lot about
it, I've suffered a lot, and I've lost a lot of friends in the process, in-
cluding a number in Vietnam.
I worked with Robert Capa a great deal in World War II. One day
in 1954 when we were working together at Magnum, I had lunch with
the Picture Editor of Life, who asked if Capa would like to cover the
war in Indochina, while Howard Sochurekcame home. Capa hap-
pened to be in Tokyo. I wanted to say no, but I felt I should ask him,
so I sent a cable to Capa saying that Life wanted him to cover the war.
George Strock, Maggot Beach near
Buna, New Guinea, 1943.
20 John Morris
To my horror he said he'd go, so I telephoned him, trying to shout all
the way to Tokyo. I said, "Bob, it's not our war. You don't have to go.
Don't go." But he went, and he got killed, and it was just a dreadful,
We buried Capa in a Quaker cemetery in Westchester County,
a little quiet place. The previous Sunday we had a little memorial
service for him at the Quaker meeting house. Edward Steichen was
sitting next to me and Bob's mother was there, and Cornell, his
brother, was there. In the style of the Quaker meeting, anybody
could speak who wanted to, and it was a very emotional thing. Then,
the body finally came back, and I hate bodies, and I hated this big
French army coffin that came all the way from Vietnam. It was a
huge ugly thing, and we were putting it in the ground. A photog-
rapher came up, a kid, and started taking pictures. One of the mem-
bers of the family came over to me and said, "Can't you stop that?" I
started to go over to the photographer, and said to myself, "My God,
what are we doing?" So I couldn't stop him. The photographer turned
out to be Dirck Halstead, who is now covering the White House for
Time magazine. This is when it hits you. This is why to me the com-
bination of human sensitivity and aesthetics are the two governing
things. Oddly enough, the intellectual often doesn't appreciate these
things. I think that one of the reasons we have so much bad photog-
raphy and so much bad photojournalism is the lack of sensitivity.
But let me go back a little bit. Let's explore sensitivity in presiden-
tial picture coverage, from Franklin Roosevelt to Gerald Ford. Roose-
velt had a physical infirmity; therefore, there was an informal rule of
censorship in the entire Roosevelt administration. Very few honest,
candid pictures of Franklin Roosevelt were taken, partly because he
would never be photographed being helped. There are some marvel-
ous pictures of Franklin Roosevelt and his sort of jaunty public per-
sonality, but there are really very few behind-the-scenes photo-
graphs. Then you've got Harry Truman, who, like Gerald Ford, was
a very confident, self-assured man who had nothing to hide. Of all the
presidents in modern times, I think Harry Truman was the most
loved by press photographers. They enjoyed him very much. Then
you get to Eisenhower, who, sort of like Ford, didn't have much to hide
and was also fairly relaxed, but a little distant. He wasn't that fond
of the press. Truman really had a rapport. He was a politician. But it
was during Eisenhower's period that television became an important
factor, and Eisenhower was the first president to be televised in any
regular way. Then the whole business of photography in the White
House became more and more of a circus, with more and more people
and equipment involved. In television you have not one man, but a
minimum of two. With lights and sound, candid photography be-
came very difficult.
Well, we get through the 1950s, and we get to 1960, and there was a
story where the timing was journalistically the best I think I've ever
achieved. In the 1960 campaign, Jacqueline Kennedy had been inter-
viewed by Molly Thayer, a journalist who was an informal Washing-
ton correspondent for Magnum. Molly had j ust written a piece about
Jackie at a press conference that Jackie liked. Molly showed me this
note from Jackie that said, "If Jack gets elected, I'd like to do you a
favor." My eyes lit up like green dollars, and the day after the elec-
tion, I called Molly and said, "O.K., collect." So she called Hyannis-
port, and was one of the first callers to get through after the election
21 John Morris
Cornell Capa, Jacqueline Kennedy
with Baby Carriage, White House
victory was confirmed. And Jackie delivered right on schedule. A
Secret Service man came to the house that weekend in Georgetown
and delivered all kinds of personal notes and papers and photo-
graphs. Molly put a series together which ran four months in the
Ladies' Home Journal. The first installment appeared on Inaugura-
tion Day, which was kind of nice, and we got a great deal of money
John Kennedy, who was very sophisticated about photography,
did not have a personal photographer. Kennedy started a policy of
inviting photographers like Cornell Capa and others sort of behind
the scenes to give a candid feeling. This was very important in hu-
manizing Kennedy, who really didn't need much humanizing any-
way. The press really had a great love affair with the Kennedys in
many ways. And still does. This was a new dimension in presidential
coverage, when you saw the kids under the desk, and Mrs. Kennedy
wheeling a baby carriage (which was a famous exclusive that Cornell
Capa made) , and things like that. Then we came to Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson, as Vice-President, had gone to Asia with a USIA photog-
rapher named Yoichi Okamoto, a very skilled photographer, a
knowledgeable historian, and a good golfer. Johnson decided to bring
Okamoto into the White House as his personal photographer, which
was the same role that Okamoto had played on the trip to Asia. Okie
began shooting a great deal of film which Johnson found very useful
politically. Johnson was a little sensitive about it though, as he liked
to be photographed only from one side. Still, he actually did give
Okamoto freedom to make a simply unparalleled record of the presi-
dency, which isn't really being continued today, I'm sorry to say,
although it's a little early to pass that judgment. This Okamoto pic-
ture, which illustrates the effectiveness with which Okamoto really
got into the inside, happens to be a Six Day War situation from 1967.
That's McNamara on the phone, supposedly on the Hot Line. I'm not
actually sure that he isn't calling his wife, but the feeling is there. I
mean, that is for real. This is where decisions are made. It's kind of
the way they're made, and I think it's very important for us taxpay-
ers to try to learn more about this.
22 John Morris
Ollie Atkins, President Nixon's Cab-
inet receiving gifts from China as the
President reports his travels. They re-
ceived teacups, cans of Chinese green
tea and mahogany jewel boxes. From
center toward right are: George Shultz,
Budget Office: Elliot Richardson,
Health, Education and Welfare; Rogers
C. B. Morton, Interior,- William P.
Rogers, State; President Nixon; Melvin
R. Laird, Defense; Peter G. Peterson,
Commerce and John Volpe, Transpor-
tation. Aides are seated against the
wall, 29 February 1972.
Mike Lien, Agnew Playing Tennis,
New York Times (page 1) , 20 May 1970.
Yoichi Okamoto, Robert McNamara
on the Telephone, 8 June 1967.
• . . . . .
23 John Morris
I have talked with David Kennerly (Ford's personal photog-
rapher) about this, and he's very aware of what Okamoto did, which
was to be able to photograph the really top level and sometimes sec-
ret business of the presidency. Okamoto, who had top secret clear-
ance, could walk in on the President at almost any time, even once
into the bedroom in Texas. Okamoto could and did make photo-
graphs of National Security Council meetings, meetings in the War
Room when they were discussing the Vietnamese crisis, McNamara
talking on the Hot Line — all these things. It's really a fabulous rec-
ord, and a lot of it still hasn't come out. Unfortunately, all of this came
to an end with the Nixon administration, which was, except for the
tapes, very tight-mouthed.
I'm not trying to make out that Okamoto's work was all sweetness
and light, because the press was very uptight about a lot of things
Okamoto did. It actually wasn't so much about what he did, as it was
that the White House would shovel the pictures out at its own dis-
cretion. There is a big problem in America about control of the press.
We don't really talk about control, but we talk about influence. Every
president likes to have a good press and a good image and perhaps
the most image-conscious of all was our late friend, Mr. Nixon. This
was the kind of picture he absolutely adored. It was taken the day he
met with the Cabinet upon his return from China. It was taken by
Ollie Atkins, who succeeded Okamoto as White House photographer,
or perhaps by one of his assistants (the White House staff is more
than one man, obviously) . They're applauding John Connolly on the
left, and some other characters you might recognize if you could look
closely. It's a different style of presidential picture coverage. I once
went into the White House basement to ask Ollie for some pictures,
and I said, "Can I see what you shot last month?" They were pictures
of birthday cakes, and things like that; I mean, it's quite a different
ball game. Occasionally you just have to get your kicks somewhere in
the picture business; and that ball actually hit the partner a fraction
of a second later. Mike Lien caught this — he was really delighted, and
I was delighted that we ran it on page one. That was the kind of thing
you had to do to get back at the Nixon White House. Mr. Nixon was
uncomfortable with the press, and also the camera, so the most re-
vealing pictures of Nixon are those he didn't plan.
Now we have Dave Kennerly assigned to Ford. Ford saw that one
of his great political assets was this feeling of casualness — a man-to-
man sort of style. It j ust fits in very well. I've been following presiden-
tial picture coverage for a long time, and I'm somewhat amused by
the Ford casualness. One of Ford's greatest attributes is that he is nat-
ural, he is relaxed, and he may not be a great man, but he is a fairly
uncomplicated man. He doesn't seem to have anything he really
wants to hide in a personal way. Cynics would say, "That's too bad,"
but in an interesting way, the Fords are humble people.
24 John Morris
I guess my story is not really a success story. It's a survival story. The
fact that I can stand here and talk to you and feel response, which I
think is really wonderful, indicates to me that there's a lot of healthy
concern about photojournalism. There are lots of discussions about
photography from the standpoint of technique, or perhaps even aes-
thetics, and actually there's a growing number of discussions about
photography and photojournalism in terms of ethics. I welcome
raising these kinds of questions openly for discussion. I think it's an
area of discussion that is rather rare.
The big problem for us is to find the proper outlets for photoj our-
nalism. This is a dreadfully serious problem. We miss the big picture
magazines. We particularly miss Life, because although politically it
was very much to the right, it was a marvelous form of presentation
of images. That magazine at one time gave you the feeling that
this was where photography was at, for better or for worse. You could
see it there; it was everybody's photo market place. So we miss it, we
miss it very badly. A lot of fine work is being done today, but it's frag-
mented in its outlets. It's in The Maine Times, and it's in The Berk-
shire Eagle, or whatever. It's in the Audubon magazine and The
Smithsonian. In total perhaps, there are just as many outlets for good
photography as there ever were, but they're j ust all over the map. I'd
like to see a new picture magazine. I'll never rest until I see a new
weekly picture magazine.
25 John Morris
Paul Schuster Taylor, professor emeri-
tus of economics at the University of
California at Berkeley, is the husband
of the late Dorothea Lange. Co-author
with her of An American Exodus, he is
a specialist in agricultural labor prob-
lems. From 1927 to 1929, Professor Tay-
lor was the chief investigator of a re-
search project of the Social Science
Research Council on Mexican Labor in
the United States; in 1935 he was field
director of the division of rural reha-
bilitation of the California Emergency
Relief Administration; between 1935
and 1936 he served as regional labor
advisor of the United States Resettle-
ment Administration. Professor Taylor
was a consulting economist of the
Social Security Board between 1936
and 1941, the president of the Califor-
nia Rural Rehabilitation Corporation
from 1935 to 1943, and a consulting econ-
omist of the Department of the In-
terior from 1943 to 1952. More recently,
in 1970 he was the research director of
the California Labor Federation. He is
the author of Sailors Union of the Pa-
cific; Mexican Labor in the United
States; A Spanish-Mexican Community
Arandas in Jalisco, Mexico; An Ameri-
can-Mexican Frontier; An American
Exodus; Slave to Freedom and Georgia
26 Paul Schuster Taylor
Dorothea Lange, Agitator, ca. 1934.
Looking into the rearview mirror and speaking for myself, I can-
not remember that anyone in my profession oriented me toward the
use of visual images. My undergraduate training at the University of
Wisconsin was at the hands of unusually able and even innovative
professors of economics, history, and sociology, but none of them
made use of pictures or suggested it. That I stumbled into gradually,
not as a social scientist but as a young human being.
I was born and raised in a small northwest Iowa city. In boyhood I
lived and worked through summer and harvest seasons on the family
farm of an uncle in southern Wisconsin. After high school I worked
three summers as a laborer on a 2000 acre Iowa farm. These experi-
ences gave me familiarity with widely different types of rural society,
but they stimulated no urge to record the visual images by camera.
As a child I saw the mounted photographs my parents had had
made at a studio, and there was an informal blue print of me sitting
in a wicker laundry basket. In high school photographs of students
came according to the calendar. When you got to be a junior, you got
your picture in the annual; when you got to college, more or less ditto.
And that was photography.
Then came World War I and the first camera I personally owned.
I do not recall knowing then of the Mathew Brady photographs of
the Civil War; certainly I never thought of that as my role in my own
war. But about that time a new, convenient instrument came onto
the market — a small, vestpocket Kodak, it was called. In it I saw the
chance, if I took it with me to France, of recording and bringing home
some memorabilia of my military service with the American Expedi-
tionary Forces. My success as a photographer was meager; but a 5 x 7
print still could tell of the horrors of war better than my hand writ-
After the war, my graduate training was again in the hands of
first-rate professionals in the social sciences. Again, so far as I can re-
call, visual images had no place in my study program.
Then came another step toward change. Not long after the grant-
ing of degrees and joining the faculty, I had the opportunity to do
field research on the contemporary migration of laborers between
Mexico and the United States. This time I bought a postcard-size
Eastman Kodak to take into the field. I wanted some kind of a visual
record of what I was about to see. In retrospect, I think it likely that
I was stimulated by familiarity with Paul Kellogg's Survey Graphic
magazine, which every month presented contemporary social situa-
tions throughout the country, combining text and photographs.
Then again, still before I knew of Dorothea Lange, came techno-
logical change to prod me. In Mexico in 1932 1 was shown a new kind
of camera, one that enabled you to see what you were going to take
before you took it. The new Rolleiflex transformed my own relation-
ship to photography. I took more pictures; and with the products
found ways of persuading academic publishers to print some of my
photographs along with my text.
I have been describing my own slow climb up the ladder towards
an appreciation of photographs, and eventually of combining them
with words. Dorothea Lange by age seventeen knew that she wanted
to photograph unemployed persons. She asked herself the question,
"If I am a photographer, why do I photograph only those persons who
pay me to do it?" Her answer was to go out onto the streets, camera in
hand. That was before we met.
27 Paul Schuster Taylor
Paul Schuster Taylor, Dorothea Lange
in Texas, 1934.
Her next steps soon brought us together. An historian university
colleague of mine told me that in adjacent Oakland lived a photog-
rapher who had a small exhibit room where he showed photographs
made outside his studio. I went to see. On that day the photographs he
was showing had been made by Dorothea Lange, of whom, of course,
I had never heard. What fascinated me especially among her prints
was one of a street agitator bellowing into a microphone at the San
Francisco Civic Center. It fitted my current need exactly. In collab-
oration with a colleague at the university, I had just completed and
sent to the Survey Graphic the draft of an article on San Francisco
and the General Strike of 1934. 1 wanted that photograph to accom-
pany it. The exhibitor, Willard van Dyke put me on the phone with
Dorothea Lange; and her photograph became the frontispiece of our
article. I think we paid her fifteen dollars for the photograph. That
was money in those days.
Another step followed quickly. Van Dyke told me that a few of his
photographer friends wanted more opportunity to photograph the
unemployed, but were uncertain how to arrange it. I told him of my
own study then in progress of self-help cooperatives among the un-
employed. One of their projects was operating a sawmill in the Cali-
fornia foothills. So one day at my door in Berkeley, Williard van
Dyke, Preston Holder, an anthropologist, Mary Jeannette Edwards,
Imogen Cunningham, and Dorothea Lange all turned up.
Regarding the difference in Dorothea's and Imogen's approach to
photography, if Dorothea saw someone leaning on an axe, she would
get him leaning on the axe. Imogen Cunningham would see some-
thing she wanted to photograph, prepare herself, and get into posi-
28 Paul Schuster Taylor
tion much more slowly. She'd come out with a beautiful result, but
it was much more deliberate. Dorothea very seldom used a tripod.
Imogen, whether or not she used a tripod, used some kind of a rest
for her camera. But each photographer had her own characteristic
way of discerning what she wanted to photograph.
I wish I'd brought a speech by the former president of the Univer-
sity of Wisconsin, one of the famed geologists of his day, in which in
1901 he spoke of the importance of what hits the retina of the eye. He
emphasized that the image that hits the eye of the untrained geolo-
gist, the trained geologist, or the ordinary untrained person is the
same; but what they see is not the same.
In January of 1935, 1 was asked to do the research and to recom-
mend a rural rehabilitation program for the New Deal Relief Ad-
ministration in California. I was asked, "What staff do you need?"
I told them I wanted a few people with academic training and, of
course, I wanted a secretary to type my letters and reports. Beyond
that, I said I'd like a photographer. Well, the first question was, what
did I want a photographer for? I was a social scientist, wasn't I? Yes.
Well, did a social scientist generally ask for a photographer? No.
Why did I want a photographer? Because the people who were going
to make the decisions about what to do about my reports were in the
cities and wouldn't see the conditions unless a photographer supplied
the photographs to accompany the text. Back and forth we went. The
director of the division put me on as field director and finally the
office manager put Dorothea Lange on the budget as a typist. Nobody
had a place in the budget for a photographer in those days.
When I came in with my first project report, Dorothea told me
how to do it. I had the properly typed text, which laid out all the con-
ditions, gave what history and background there was, what statistics
or estimates I was able to put in, and what I was able to recommend.
You've heard of wire spiral binding. Well, that was just new and I'd
never heard of it; but she had. So we spiral bound her photographs
along with my text. When the members of the California Relief Ad-
ministration were sitting around a table, my skeptical director of the
Division of Rural Rehabilitation tore out four or five of the sheets that
had Dorothea's photographs on them and passed them around the
table. The Commission voted him $200,000 to set up sanitary camps
for migrant laborers. So after that, no question was raised about why
I wanted a photographer. It worked. In this way our work together
began, and in four years came to fruition in An American Exodus.
I was transferred to the Resettlement Administration. You might
say Dorothea secured my place. Eventually we were married and
went on working very closely as a team under two separate sub-juris-
dictions of the Resettlement Administration.
A year later I was transferred to the Social Security Board. Con-
gress, in passing the Social Security law, left farm labor uncovered. In
the same legislation, Congress mandated the Social Security Board to
study the problems of the farm laborers. To do that, they called me
and asked if I would become a consultant to the Social Security
Board. As we had pretty close collaboration in the New Deal, the
Social Security Board cooperated closely with the Resettlement Ad-
ministration and Farm Security. So, when summer came around and
I was free from my university duties, the Social Security Board sent
me, and the Resettlement sent Dorothea, out in the same car to cross
the country, back and forth, Georgia to California.
29 Paul Schuster Taylor
Young Sharecropper on $5 \ Month "Ft rnish"
'Hit's a hard get-by. The rand's ]us! In fer to hold the world together.
We think the landlord ought to let the government have this land and
build it up, but he's got money and he don't believe 111 that way. Be-
tween Buck Creek and Whitewater Creek nobody can make a living."
Neighbor "A piece of meat in the house would like to scare these chil-
dren of mine to death.'
MticoJi County, Georgia, July lb, 7917
CoLtt'LE. Born in Slavery
"1 remember when the Yankees come through, a whole passel of 'em,
hollerin". and told the Negroes you're free But they didn't gel nothin'
cause we had carried the best horses and mules over to the gttlley."
Plantation with -28 families abandoned in 1924 after the boll weevil
Greene County, Georgia. July 20. loij
Dorothea Lange, An American Exodus,
We solved the administrative problems. We were in different
departments; but you'd never have known it, we worked so closely-
together. As we crossed the country, which we did twice across the
southern half of the United States, we saw at least two things. One
was the diversity of the rural conditions across the country. The ma-
chine was the second. We saw the impact of change. Will Alexander,
eventually the director of the Farm Security, and a couple of col-
leagues had put out a beautiful study of the distress on the planta-
tion. We sent him our first photographs from the field. He said, "We
hadn't seen the machine before." In a matter of a couple of years,
the machine, the tractor, had arrived and we j ust bumped into it. We
saw what a tractor, a four-row planter, and a four-row cultivator
could do to dislodge sharecroppers.
An American Exodus, representing a "revolutionary combination
of words and pictures," was produced by the close collaboration of a
photographer and a social scientist. Neither Dorothea Lange nor I
could have produced An American Exodus alone. Beyond that, "the
revolutionary combination of words and pictures" was enhanced by
obtaining informally the collaboration of many of the persons pho-
tographed who on the spot spoke to us from their inmost depths.
I drove the car and she did the looking. When she said to stop, I
stopped. I let her out of the car, parked it, and usually got out too.
What she said was, "I wrap around myself a cloak of invisibility."
30 Paul Schuster Taylor
If I COULD GET ME A PIECE OF LAND ID GO TO DIGGIN IT WITH MY HANDS * LOTS OF THINGS ARE GOIN ON NOW THAT DIDNT USETER DO * I COME FROM
TEXAS AND DONT OWE OR OWN A THIN DIME BACK THERE * HE'S ALWAYS BEEN A FARMER AND HE CANT GET A FARM * THAT DROUGHT PUT THE FIXINS TO
US * WE DRIED OUT THERE THREE YEARS HAND RUNNIN * THAT YEAR THE SPRING COME AND FOUND US BLANK * HERE'S WHAT I THINK ON IT— THE TRAC
TOR'S AS STRONG AGAINST US AS THE DROUGHT * WE MADE A DOLLAR WORKIN FROM DAWN TILL YOU JUST CANT SEE * THE MONEY MEN GOT THAT COUN
TRY— THEY RUN IT WHAT I MEAN * THEM MEN THAT'S DOIN THE TALKIN FOR THE COUNTRY IS THE BIG LANDOWNERS * THE FARMALL IS KNOCKING OUR
RENTERS OUT OF THEIR PLACES AND SCATTERING THEM ALL OVER * THEY DONT STOP TO SHUT THE DOOR THEY JUST WALK OUT * HE CLAIMS TRACTORS IS
RIGHT SMART CHEAPER * THEY TAKE THE REDUCTION MONEY AND KICK US OFF AND BUY FARMALLS * WE CAN WORK THIS LAND AS GOOD AS ANYBODY. WE
WAS RAISED ON IT * ALL WE GOT TO START WITH IS A FAMILY OF KIDS * I HEERED TELL OF THIS HERE IRRIGATION, PLENTY OF WATER AND PLENTY TO EAT
* SEEMS LIKE PEOPLE HERE IS CRAZY ABOUT CALIFORNIA— THEY GO IN DROVES * HE'S GOT THE OREGON iTCH * SON TO FATHER YOU DIDN'T KNOW THE
WORLD WAS SO WIDE FATHER TO SON NO, BUT I KNEW WHAT I WAS GOIN TO HAVE FOR BREAKFAST • THIS IS A HARD LIFE TO SWALLOW BUT I JUST COULDNT
SIT BACK THERE AND LOOK TO SOMEONE TO FEED US * LIVIN A BUM'S LIFE SOON MAKES A BUM OUT OF YOU. YOU GET STARTED AND YOU CANT STOP * MAKIN
A LIVIN EVEN THIS KIND OF A LIVIN BEATS STARVIN TO DEATH BACK THERE WE LIKE TO STARVE TO DEATH * NIGH TO NOTHIN AS EVER I SEE * BURNED OUT,
BLOWED OUT, EAT OUT, TRACTORED OUT * YESSIR, WE'RE STARVED STALLED AND STRANDED * I WOULDNT HAVE RELIEF NO WAY IT WAS FIXED * IF YOU
DON'T HAVE TO GO TO THE GOVERNMENT MAN FOR WHAT BREAD YOU EAT I LIKE IT BETTER * LOTS OF EM HARP ABOUT THE WPA RELIEF BUT THE BIG PLOW UP
CHECK WHAT'S THAT BUT RELIEF' * WE AINT NO PAUPERS WE HOLD OURSELVES TO BE WHITE FOLKS. WE DONT WANT NO RELIEF BUT WHAT WE DO WANT IS A
CHANST TO MAKE AN HONEST LIVING LIKE WHAT WE WAS RAISED * SHE SAYS, WHY DIDNT YOU STAY THERE— WHEN I SAYS I COME FROM TEXAS * WHEN YOU
GITS DOWN TO YOUR LAST BEAN YOUR BACKBONE AND YOUR NAVEL SHAKES DICE TO SEE WHICH GITS IT * YOU EAT IT UP FASTER THAN YOU CAN MAKE IT * I
HAVENT NOTHIN TO GO BACK TO * I COULDNT DO NOTHIN IF I WENT BACK * THIS LIFE IS SIMPLICITY BOILED DOWN * A PICTURE OF ME CAINT DO NO
HARM + WE TRUST IN THE LORD AND DONT EXPECT MUCH * WE GOT ENOUGH TROUBLES WITHOUT GOING COMMUNIST * CHRIST ILL DIE BEFORE ILL SAY
I'D BRING UP A BUNCH OF KIDS LIVING THIS WAY * I'VE WROTE BACK THAT WE'RE WELL AND SUCH AS THAT, BUT I NEVER HAVE WROTE THAT WE LIVE IN A TENT
* THEY SAY WE TOOK WORK CHEAP BUT YOU'VE GOT TO TAKE WORK CHEAP AND WE DIDN'T WANT NO RELIEF * WHEN THEY GET THROUGH WORKING YOU THEY
WANT YOU OUT OF THE WAY * I WAS BORN AND RAISED A 100 PERCENT AMERICAN I FOUGHT AND I'M PROUD OF ITTHINKIN I WAS HELPIN THE GOVERNMENT AND
MY FAMILY * WE LIVE MOST ANYWHERE IN GENERAL WHERE THERE'S WORK * TAINT HARDLY FAIR THEY HOLLER THAT WE AINT CITIZENS BUT THEIR FRUIT
WOULD ROT IF WE DIDNT COME * BROTHER, HIT'S PICK SEVENTY FIVE CENT COTTON OR STARVE * BROTHER, HIT'S PICK SEVENTY FIVE CENT COTTON OR
ELSE * MY BOYS ARE AMERICAN CITIZENS. IF WAR WAS DECLARED THEY'D HAVE TO FIGHT NO MATTER WHERE THEY WAS. I DONT SEE WHY WE CANT BE
CITIZENS BECAUSE WE MOVE AROUND WITH THE FRUIT TRYIN TO MAKE A LIVIN * A HUMAN BEING HAS A RIGHT TO STAND LIKE A TREE HAS A RIGHT TO STAND
Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster
Taylor. End paper, An American
Dorothea Lange, An American Exodus,
31 Paul Schuster Taylor
Dorothea Lange, An American Exodus,
32 Paul Schuster Taylor
Psychologically, that's how she took care of herself. When I got out
of the car I think I helped her. We would usually just saunter up to
people. Usually I walked a couple of steps ahead of her, let her come
up behind with her camera. In those days it was a Rolleiflex, so there
it was carried amidships. Usually I would open the conversation. I
had to learn how to approach people whom I didn't know and who
didn't know me. I learned that the best way to approach someone was
to start with a question that would sound natural from a stranger.
For example, "Can you tell me how far it is to the next town?" The
answer didn't make any difference. When Dorothea was with me, I
could pull out my notebook more easily. I think I diverted their atten-
tion from Dorothea and attracted it to myself and she was able to
start working without raising a question. If, after a while, they raised
a question, and they not infrequently did, we would explain that the
government had sent us out to talk with the people of the country
and get the story of how things looked from their point of view, and
then tell it to Washington.
Dorothea was not dependent upon me, however. She could do it
herself, as "Migrant Mother" showed us how very well she could. In
fact, I've always remembered that I was never around when she took
her most famous pictures. But I don't want any inferences drawn
I think being a woman was a great advantage to Dorothea. I think
it made approaches to people easier; she stirred up less resistance
from people. When she was alone, she'd walk up to them, never ag-
gressive. If she detected any resistance, she folded the camera down,
in effect saying, "Oh, I'm not going to photograph you." And I'm sure
that, not infrequently, since I saw it sometimes when I was there, hav-
ing closed it, after a while when the atmosphere changed, she would
open it again and she'd get her photograph.
Dorothea used a Rolleiflex a great deal, followed by the Hassel-
blad, which was similar to the Rolleiflex. Later, she used a 4 x 5
Eastman Kodak and later, 35 mm cameras, a Nikon and Leica, I
think. She didn't use a 35 mm camera at first because the quality of
the film was not good enough to permit the enlargement she wanted.
It was too grainy. As the film improved, she turned more and more to
the 35 mm camera.
One of the things Dorothea said to me was that originally she
destroyed the negatives that were defective. Later, she changed her
method. The trouble was that she found that when the whole nega-
tive was defective, there was so often a part of it which apparently
had moved her to take the photograph. She would enlarge that par-
ticular part and get something akin to what she wanted in the origi-
nal taking of the photograph. That was something that she learned
of her own methods.
I think she did a minimum of talking, the least she had to do. She
listened mostly, I'm sure, and it was her attitude, this "cloak of invis-
ibility," which protected her, drew them out, and reassured them.
She came away with what they said. I remember very little of what
she said. The endpapers of An American Exodus are words. That's
what they said. A major part of those were said to her. What she usu-
ally did, if I was close by (I had a pocket notebook) was sidle over to
me and say what they had said to her down the hill from me. When
asked about her ability to do this, I have answered, "In my experi-
ence, her ear was as good as her eye."
33 Paul Schuster Taylor
I don't know when the idea of a book came into our minds. I think
it was Dorothea's idea. We had too many children around to work in
peace and privacy. This was in the Depression when you could rent
an apartment for fifteen dollars. So, about a half a mile from our
house, she rented a third floor apartment. The reason she wanted an
apartment was so that she could lay the photographs out on the floor
and see which should be paired together on opposing pages. Doro-
thea wanted themes because she believed that photographs can have
relationships with each other, and in their relationships tell far more
than the isolated prints. That's how the book was prepared. We tied
the words and documentation to the photographs.
The book has two impacts. Of course, the large growers in Califor-
nia didn't welcome our program for sanitary camps for migrants.
What they wanted was federal money out of the Treasury at a low
rate of interest so they could build the camps and have control over
them. One day a grower came to my office and wanted to know how
big the camps were to be. I said I thought they were to be two hun-
dred families per camp. He said that was too many because the work-
ers were likely to organize. And then so many of the newspapers,
apparently from the far left, called me names for proposing camps
for migrants which would be run by the growers. And at one of the
first of two camps, some people came in with growers' interest who
said they were not going to allow any organization; they would come
in there if necessary with guns. Now the rest of the impact, which
kind of deflates me. We were coming out of the Depression with news
of the outbreak of war in Europe and the possibility that we might
become involved. People had had enough of the Depression. So, when
the publishers made it into a book, it went out of print in no time flat.
I bought twelve copies myself at one dollar apiece. So you see, the
impact may or may not depend on the merits of the book. The merits
of the book may look different to different people at different times.
A revised edition of An American Exodus published in 1969 is out
One thing that strikes me is the relatively minor participation by
historians, political scientists, economists, psychologists, and geolo-
gists in photography. Anthropologists appreciate photographs more
than the sociologists because the early anthropologists in this coun-
try realized that there were only a few Indians left who were tribal
in character; and it's now or never. So they took a camera along with
them. Besides, the Indians didn't read or write. So, you couldn't rely
on that kind of documentation. If you wanted to show what they
looked like, dressed like, you had to take a camera along. The anthro-
pologists from then right down to the present time have been per-
haps the leaders in the social sciences and humanities in the use of
photography. Of course, one of the obstacles, not a conscious ob-
stacle, but the foot dragging, is my own profession. We weren't raised
to use visual images for our work in economics. Text, and later on,
statistics. But photographs? Well, anthropologists used them per-
haps, but hardly anybody else. There was never one person at the top
of the field, at the top university, that ever hinted to me that pho-
tography would be a good source of documentation.
Photography is a language. So are words. And if you put these two
together, thats' fine. The geographer has a language— maps. A geolo-
gist uses maps too. And the statistician uses numbers. The specializa-
34 Paul Schuster Taylor
tion of each is not hard to understand; and there can be considerable
enrichment by joining as many languages as are relevant.
You see, photography is a language. So are words. And if you put
these two together, that's fine. The geographer has a language — it's
maps. A geologist uses maps too. And the statistician uses numbers.
The specialization of each is not hard to understand; and there can
be considerable enrichment by joining as many languages as are
Dorothea Lange herself gave serious thought to the place of pho-
tography within the humanities. Under the title "Documentary Pho-
tography" she made this contribution to Ansel Adams' 1940 book
A Pageant of Photography:
Documentary photography records the social scene of our time. It
mirrors the present and documents the future. Its focus is man in
his relation to mankind. It records his customs at work, at war, at
play, or his round of activities through twenty-four hours of the
day, the cycles of the seasons, or the span of a life. It portrays his
institutions — family, church, government, political organizations,
social clubs, labor unions. It shows not merely their facades, but
seeks to reveal the manner in which they function, absorb the life,
hold the loyalty, and influence the behavior of human beings. It
is concerned with methods of work and the dependence of work-
men on each other and on their employers. It is preeminently
suited to build a record of change. Advancing technology raises
the standards of living, creates unemployment, changes the faces
of cities and of the agricultural landscape. The evidence of these
trends — the simultaneous existence of the past, present, and the
portent of the future — is conspicuous in old and new forms, old
and new customs, on every hand. Documentary photography
stands on its own merits and has validity by itself. A single photo-
graphic print may be "news," a "portrait," "art," or "documen-
tary" — any of these, all of them, or none. Among the tools of
social sciences — graphs, statistics, maps, and text — documenta-
tion by photograph now is assuming place. Documentary photog-
raphy invites and needs participation by amateurs as well as by
professionals. Only through the interested work of amateurs who
choose themes and follow them can documentation by the camera
of our age and our complex society be intimate, pervasive, and
Dorothea is known for her photographs outside the family. She
photographed also within the family. Some people, with their cam-
eras, begin to see when they dash out the front door, away from
home. She could see within and around the home as well as she could
see outside. Do you know To A Cabin? That's where the family
gathered under special circumstances. She took pictures of the fam-
ily and friends on the beach, swimming, in various forms of attire,
running up and down the beach; and the dogs running up and down
the beach with them. So you had a photograph, a record of the
family on the beach of the Pacific Ocean, at play. When the book
came out, it was reviewed under the title, "a very different Dorothea
Lange." Photographers tend to become labeled by some of their
important works so that the vision appears to be limited, in a way,
almost as though by horses' blinders.
35 Paul Schuster Taylor
Dorothea Lange, To a Cabin, 1973.
Dorothea Lange, To a Cabin, 1973.
36 Paul Schuster Taylor
Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor, To a
Dorothea Lange, To a Cabin, 1973.
37 Paul Schuster Taylor
The land on which those cabins are sited was taken over by the
State Park Department. The State purchased it from the landowners.
We were simply tenants, along with fifteen or sixteen others. And, for
whatever reason, the Park Department decided it wanted to raze
those cabins. She showed what she saw, the value of those cabins to
her family, by arranging for the publication of the book. Then came
her final illness and she couldn't do it. But she left the photographs
behind. Margaretta Mitchell, cooperating, produced To A Cabin with
her own and Dorothea's photographs, separated, not mixed; differ-
ent, and yet in perfect harmony.
The people of California voted a commission to examine the pres-
ervation of the coastline of California. A newspaper man, a friend of
mine who didn't know Dorothea, gave the book to the chairman of
the coastal commission. The chairman put on his knapsack, so I'm
told, and walked down to the cabins. As a result, the coastal commis-
sion forbade razing the cabins so long as it had jurisdiction. Which
means, well, maybe another year. After that, who knows? But at
least they held it up.
Photography doesn't need to be just an avocation. You can have a
purpose; you can get something done. I've given one example, where
Dorothea's To A Cabin is, for the time being at least, attaining a re-
sult which was no part of her intention, because when she took the
photographs she didn't know that razing the cabins was going to be
proposed by anybody. So, taking photographs, you never know when
you're doing more than making a record of something. You never
know when you're really moving somebody to do something. Of
course, the star illustration of moving somebody to do something is
In 1936 the pea crop at Nipomo, California had frozen, and with-
out earnings the migrant pea pickers literally were starving. There
was no employment; there was no money; there was no food; there
was no relief.
Dorothea had been out in the field in southern California photo-
graphing the migrants. When she came up the coast, she passed
Nipomo. It was the first place that she had photographed the year
before when she became a member of my team for the Rural Reha-
bilitation Division of the Emergency Relief Administration. I had
taken her down there. I didn't know how they would receive a photog-
rapher. Here they were, in distress, at the bottom of the social and
economic ladder. So I had assigned one of my staff assistants to carry
her camera equipment. I told both of them, "I don't care if, on the first
day, you don't take a single photograph. I don't want any untoward
events to take place. I don't know how the people will receive a pho-
tographer." Well, in no time flat, Dorothea had her camera out and
was photographing the people. There was not a single incident. A
year later, she drove past Nipomo. She got twenty miles north. Then
something inside her moved her to return. So, she turned the car
around, went back that twenty miles, and went into the original pea
camp that she'd known. The result was six negatives, one of them
The migrant mother's distress was written all over her face and
the postures of her children. I've asked Dorothea what she said, and
this is somewhat unusual. Dorothea did not recall the words of the
conversation, but she knew the conditions. They had sold the tires
off the car in order to get a few dollars for food.
38 Paul Schuster Taylor
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother,
Nipomo, California, 1936.
The Museum of Modern Art.
39 Paul Schuster Taylor
Magazine cover, Bohemia Venezolana,
10 May 1964.
Diana Thorne, Spanish Mother, The
Terror of 1938, lithograph, 1939.
The Museum of Modern Art.
Malik, Back Page of Black Panthers'
Newspaper, 1973. Courtesy of Paul
POVERTY IS A CRIME, AND OUR PEOPLE ARE
40 Paul Schusteb Taylor
Dorothea took prints over to the San Francisco News as soon as
she could develop the negatives and make the prints, which took, I
suppose, a day or two. The News ran an editorial on the starving pea
pickers and spoke of the chance visit of a government photographer,
unnamed, of course. Nobody named a photographer in those days.
The paper produced two photographs, neither one "Migrant Mother,"
but both of her and her children. It notified the Relief Administra-
tion. In no time, food was on the way from southern California to the
Nipomo pea pickers.
A good many years later, a woman, through an attorney, raised ob-
jections when she saw the spreading use of the photograph of herself.
It hurt Dorothea very much. What appears to have taken place is
that the woman married a man of some means and, I suppose, didn't
like the photograph of her face and her distress spread all over. I
don't think she was ever able to collect any money. She never tried
further with Dorothea. In fact, I don't think she tried directly with
Dorothea, because Dorothea got the word secondhand from a pub-
What I'm doing is telling you that if you want to move people, pho-
tographs surely have the power to do it. I speak as one who uses
words most of the time. Sometimes I think I get results; sometimes I
think I move people; sometimes I think I don't. Photographs have the
power to move people beyond words.
That was the first effect of the pictures. The next effect was to
spread reproductions of "Migrant Mother" almost around the world.
Dorothea said, "That photograph seems to have a life of its own."
Initially I likened the photograph to a madonna and child in the
tradition of Raphael. Now I add that "Migrant Mother" has entered
the realm of folklore.
About 1960, the Latin American magazine Bohemia reproduced
"Migrant Mother" on its cover. In doing so, Bohemia took the liberty,
first of turning the head of one of the children around to show its face,
next of coloring the original black and white-photograph, and finally
of giving no credit to the photographer. I think it's okay. It shows real
approval of the "Migrant Mother." I'm pleased with the observation.
It shows how widely the photograph is seen and appreciated.
Confirmation came about two years ago in California. The Black
Panthers newspaper reproduced, full page, its own version of what
unmistakably had begun as "Migrant Mother." It was hand drawn
in black and white, showing frizzy hair and the eyes of a black wo-
man. Once again, the criteria of folklore in song and verse were met
in this photograph. Since it belongs to the folk, anyone is at liberty to
reproduce it without crediting its original source, to do so with varia-
tions as desired, retaining only recognizable essentials of the origi-
nal. "Migrant Mother" has entered the realm of folklore, along with
its other places in the areas of documentation and art.
41 Paul Schuster Taylor
Gjon Mili was born in Kerce, Southern
Albania, and spent his boyhood in Ru-
mania. He came to America when he
was eighteen in 1923, and received his
B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
in 1927. He was a graduate student with
Westinghouse Electric and Manufac-
turing Co. in 1928, and then a lighting
research engineer with the Westing-
house Lamp Division, from 1928-1938.
He has written numerous technical
papers on his researches in light
projection, optics, and photography. He
developed the biplane filament lamp,
the brightest tungsten light source
then available. He has also done con-
siderable work interpreting photomet-
ric concepts by means of photographs
of beam patterns, filament images, and
lighted glassware. Between 1930 and
1935 he developed the lighting tech-
nique now used universally in color
photography with high intensity incan-
descent and photoflash lamps. He has
also been involved since 1938 in experi-
mental and commercial high-speed
flash photography, in cooperation with
Dr. H. E. Edgerton of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. Mili's career
as a professional photographer began
when his photographs of the tennis
champion Bobby Riggs in action were
published in Life Magazine (September
16, 1938) ; since then his by-line has ap-
peared constantly in the pages of Life.
In the fall of 1969 he gave a series of
lectures at Yale University on "The
Photo Essay;" and he taught at the
Summer Art Project sponsored by
Sarah Lawrence College at La Coste,
France, during 1972, 1973 and 1974. He
is at present an instructor in the "Prin-
ciples of Photography" at Hunter Col-
lege, New York, where he has taught
42 Gjon Mili
Fifty-two years ago when I started learning this business — and I find
that I am still learning — photography was a new course at M.I.T.
I enrolled in it out of curiosity. My first experiment was to photo-
graph the southwest corner of the Institute building through the
laboratory window. It was a bright clear day, the time 1: 30 p.m., the
date October 9, 1924. 1 used a 4x5 par speed portrait cut film and the
exposure was half a second, the aperture f/16. Translated into pres-
ent terminology, the film speed would approximate ASA 2, as com-
pared to modern films which are often several hundred times faster.
Making use of the increased film speeds, on the one hand, and arti-
ficial light sources especially designed for taking pictures indoors, on
the other, resulted in an enormously expanded interest and activity
in photography. Two powerful light sources of very short duration,
namely the aluminum foil photoflash lamp and the electronic flash,
commonly known as strobe, which came into being in 1931 and 1937
respectively, brought a new dimension to the photography of sub-
jects in motion.
I was very friendly, very close, to a fam-
ily which was musical, and this was
the elder daughter of the house play-
ing Bach on her cello. It was my first
experiment in recording a moving sub-
ject with aluminum foil photoflash
lamps, newly arrived from Germany
where they had been invented in 1931.
The picture was taken by firing one
lamp during the open and close shutter
movement. At that time, since I was a
student in photography and I read
everything and saw everything that
was being done, I was strictly a Wes-
tonian. The creed was that photography
was a way of communicating— I don't
want to use the word art— and you com-
municate something novel through tex-
ture, and it is the contrast between the
adjacent areas that gives you the shock
and the impact. Well now, I love this,
and I've kept it all these years, because,
I suppose, I was romantically attached,
not to the girl, but to the idea of
music. I found the photograph very
satisfying, but I kept wishing it was
sharper. This necessity for sharpness
of detail, which is after all the prime
requisite for photographic quality, led
shortly to the development of synchro-
nizers. These made possible photoflash
exposures of 1/100 to 1/250 of a second
duration. The portrait of a laughing
fellow engineer, my first attempt in the
use of a synchronizer, shows a distinct
improvement in capturing a full laugh
without blurring or loss of detail.
Margaret Aue playing cello, 1931.
Between 1928 and 1929 1 was a lighting research engineer with the
Westinghouse Lamp Division. Then in 1937 1 came to give a lecture at
M.I.T. before a symposium of the engineering societies. I was asked to
speak about existing light sources in photography. The other speaker
on that occasion was Dr. Harold E. Edgerton of M.I.T.; he talked about
his recent development of an electronic flash, with the remarkably
short duration of 1/100,000 of a second, which had allowed him to
make some extraordinary photographs.
After the meeting he said, "Come, I want to talk to you." Back in
his office he asked, "What can we do with this light source, from your
43 Gjon Mili
Man laughing, 1931.
point of view?" I said, "Give me ten times the light, and I quit West-
inghouse' " Professor Edgerton agreed to furnish me with a battery
of his lights to test their use in actual commerce. You see, by this time
Life had been created. For the previous three or four years I had been
a consultant in establishing the techniques for color and flash photog-
raphy I even had the run of Steichen's studio. Every time Steichen
had a problem in lighting he picked up the phone and said come over
and how do we resolve this or that. I was fortunate to have started
early enough in photography to have gotten the basic background
for resolving these problems. Well, six months later, I had five times
the light from Edgerton and we had an assist from Agfa. Agfa put out
a film the first super pan film, which was three times as fast as any-
thing'that we had. Agfa took it in one jump to ASA 32. Well, I was in
business. I spent about six months doing experimental photographs,
and then I went to Life.
44 Gjon Mili
Bobby Riggs, 1938.
Don McNeil, 1940.
September 4, 1938; my first assignment
from Life: Bobby Riggs, the tennis
champion. Photographs of his three
strokes: serve, forehand and backhand.
When these pictures were published
everybody was startled to see the ball
stopped sharp in mid-air. Notice the
contortions of the muscles. But now I
find this photograph weak, dated; the
ball appears inactive.
Two years later I photographed Riggs'
successor, Don McNeil, and got a
proper shot where body, facial expres-
sion, racket, and ball combine effec-
45 Gjon Mili
Celestine Jay Ku, "Blowing Bubbles,"
Carol Lynne, 1945.
A photograph need not invite reflection
so much as create a shock and arouse
the viewer to the strangeness of the
passage. It can illuminate the truth of
a gesture, make visual a musician mak-
ing music. It can give life to stone, cap-
ture the wonder of a child reaching for
a soap bubble.
In 1949 I was asked to do Picasso's por-
trait for Life. I said, "All right, how
do you get to him?" Well, I even asked
Matisse. I said, "Can you get me an
introduction to Picasso?" He said, "No
you have to go to the beach." Well that I
knew as much. But on my way through
Paris to the Riviera, I stopped to meet
one of his nephews, Javier Vilate, a
young painter. I spent an evening with
him and one thing he said struck a re-
sponsive chord in my mind : "My uncle
says, 'If you want to draw, you must
shut your eyes and sing.' " That went
through my mind all the way from
Paris to the Riviera. I thought, why not
draw in the dark, but with a light in-
stead of a pencil? Days later, settled at
Golfe Juan near the beach where Pi-
casso swam daily, I observed him from
a distance for a full morning. I got the
routine of his movements precisely.
The next day when he was about to
leave, and I could tell, I just dropped
right in his way . . . he's very short.
I said, "Excuse me, I'm a photographer.
I would like to do your portrait." He
said. "Oh? Go ahead." I said, "No,
serious, serious." And at that point I
confronted him with a photograph,
taken in darkness, showing a skater's
spread leap traced with lights attached
to the skates. Picasso reacted instantly.
46 Gjon Mili
Picasso's first attempt at drawing in
space with light, 1949.
47 Gjon Mili
Being able to make an image of your fellow man in a way that is
distinctive and at the same time illuminating is about the finest thing
that you can do. Ideally the candid portrait should capture a distinc-
tive facet of character so vividly as to shock the viewer. A moment
can hardly reveal the whole person but it can communicate one of
two things: the emotional state of the subject, or a dominant, not
necessarily definable expression that is characteristic of the person.
I was on the French Riviera taking
publicity photographs for a film. Lady
L, with Sophia Loren and Paul New-
man. Well, I was there for a week or
two and you know you have to make
friends. Fortunately I had assistance
from another photographer who had
done work with me. An Italian boy said,
"Do you mind if I follow you? I want
to see what you do." (He was a papa-
razzo) . I said, "Sure." You see, Sophia
Loren is Eisenstadt's property; we split
the world in fiefs, so to speak. So one
bright morning at nine, which was very
early for Madame, I just came out with
a camera. "What are you trying to do?"
she protested, "No, no, no. Darling, it's
too early in the morning!" And her
hand shot out to shield her face from the
camera. Now truth to tell, I was not
sure that I had a photograph, but fortu-
nately the teeth and the eye breaking
through the open fingers are enough to
indicate the rambunctious, vital qual-
ity, well, the femaleness of the lady.
48 Gjon Mili
Raoul Dufy paints a church at Rock-
port, Massachusetts, August, 1949.
Sometimes the simple matter of taking
a portrait can result in a heartwarm-
ing tale. A photograph of Raoul Dufy
painting, which appeared in Life mag-
azine (December 12, 1949), was instru-
mental in bringing him to America,
under the auspices of the Arthritic
Foundation, to seek a cure for his ad-
vanced arthritis with the newly discov-
ered drug, cortisone. In short, his con-
dition improved substantially in a mat-
ter of months, his spirits rose, and I
acquired one fine friend.
49 Gjon Mili
Anthony Blum, solo, "Dancers at a
Gathering." (Jerome Robbins). 1969.
The four consecutive images of the
dancer performing were impressed on
the same frame of film with electronic
flashes. Fired at will as the dance
evolved, they created this unique,
Group. "Dancers at a Gathering,"
(Jerome Robbins). 1969.
50 Gjon Mili
I had no particular reason to start learning photography. In high
school I was living in Rumania and photography was really very
primitive. I remember experimenting with one of my friends in high
school, copying photographs: printing them from negatives. It was
a matter of putting paper against the negative on the window in the
sun and doing it for something like a minute or two before you had
an image, and movies to me were the Perils of Pauline
By and large my engineering training reduced photography to an
exercise in logic and legibility; I had to have a good reason for making
a photograph and I had to know how to resolve my technical prob-
lems so that the image would speak clearly. This way of thinking
made it easy for me to accept Edward Weston's belief that the camera,
should be used for rendering the very substance and quintessence
of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.
Sharply drawn texture was a technical necessity, and presenting en-
hanced reality, freezing the moment, seemed sufficient unto itself.
But in time, I felt this approach limiting, and I found myself doing
more and more interpretive reporting of humanistic subjects. Little
did I realize that, in losing part of the contents of my studio unexpec-
tedly through a fire, I would gain a freer, if more complex, vision.
It was not until 1969, when I photographed Jerry Robbins' ballet
"Dancers at a Gathering," that I purposely let chance, unshaped ele-
ments become part of the composition. Concurrently with the pre-
cisely conceived strobe sequences, which had become a trademark
of my work, I also registered on the same piece of film the random
imagery that occurs with normal lighting when the camera is open
for seconds at a time. What pleases me is that somehow or other,
partly due to the ballet sense which I had acquired through con-
tinuously photographing and viewing ballet, partly due to luck, I was
able to keep coherence within my patterns. More often than not the
photographs we consider best seem largely accidental. It is as if a
combination of unforeseen circumstances had joined to create a
unique moment, never to be realized again. The image which ensues
still may not necessarily have the clarity, the sharpness of an in-
stantaneous image, but a coherent pattern sometimes spells more
than sheer reality. In other words, I was trying to poeticize with the
camera. I always start with preconceived notions, which serve as
guideposts. I once went into the theatre during a final rehearsal and
pointed the camera at the dancers as they were moving with the
lighting, and opened the camera for half a second, for a second, to
see what I would get. But what I did there was to move the camera in
hand, not hold it steady, but move it in counterpoint to the move-
ment hoping that whenever there was a rest in movement in the sub-
ject, in the ballet, my hand would also be steadfast, and so I would get
an occasional sharp image which would counterbalance the sense of
movement which is not clarified otherwise. Experience has taught me
what Heraclitus knew already: "If you do not expect it, you will not
find the unexpected, for it is hard to find and difficult." I often say to
students that sometimes it's ambiguity that creates the photograph.
There is something about this which, frankly, defies the laws of
probability. So to me these are all accidents. I'm not concerned with
art, really; I'm concerned with photography, whatever it may be. I
didn't come here as a photographer; I came here as a humanist.
Teaching you photography would be a failure. How can you teach
something that took me fifty years to learn and forget? You can't
teach that sort of thing in life.
51 Gjon Mili
Robert Frank was born in Zurich,
Switzerland, in 1924. He began to photo-
graph in 1942, and served apprentice-
ships with Hermann Eidenberg in
Basel, and Michael Wolgensinger in
Zurich. In 1947, Frank came to the
United States and worked as a fashion
photographer for Harper's Bazaar, with
the encouragement of Alexey Brodo-
vitch. In 1948, Frank spent six months
traveling in Bolivia and Peru. Photo-
graphs from the trip were first pub-
lished in Neuf, 1952, and later published
as the book, Incas to Indians, with addi-
tional photographs by Werner Bischof
and Pierre Verger. In 1953, Frank ac-
companied Edward Steichen to Europe
for a collection trip leading to the ex-
hibition, "Post-War European Photog-
raphers," and in 1955 became the first
European to receive a Guggenheim Fel-
lowship. Under the Guggenheim Fel-
lowship, Frank traveled and photo-
graphed in the United States, and
published Les Americains, with an
introduction by Alain Bosquet (Paris,
1958) , and The Americans, with an
introduction by Jack Kerouac. Frank
began filmmaking in 1958, and he re-
cently completed a film on The Rolling
52 Robert Frank
I'm just trying to, as they say, find my bearings. But what shall we
talk about? I usually talk about the weather first. I live in Nova Scotia
now, and one thing it has done to me is I changed speed. It's a remote
little village— Cape Breton, and it's very slow. Once I got stuck in a
field with the truck, and a guy I know stopped on the road and came
walking over. He just looked at me and said, "Calm down, Robert.
Calm down. " That's sort of one change I felt by living there, but I
think that's a very important change. I calmed down.
I was apprenticed in Switzerland when I was nineteen or so, to a
photographer, and switched to some others. I did it mainly because
I didn't want to go into my father's business. I had no Brownie, you
know, or anything. I never went to photography school, but I was
lucky in meeting the right people. In New York. That's what New
York is great for. You really meet the people you need. You choose
them. I lived in New York for a long time, and I think it wore me
down. I didn't want to fight that hard anymore. I sort of ran away. I
still think New York is an incredible place, and that I could go back
and work there again, because in Nova Scotia I wasn't able to work.
Now I'm in California, teaching filmmaking for two months at the
University of California at Davis. I like that, because I can talk about
filmmaking quite easily— it's easier than talking about photography,
because photography is sort of in the past for me, and I always like
to talk about what happens now.
Why did you leave still photography to do film?
It was logical for me to get off doing still photography and becoming
a success at it. I think it would just become a repeat— I would repeat
myself. I have found my style, and I could build on that, and just sort
of vary it a little bit here and there. But beyond that, I don't think
there's much beyond that. I've never been successful at making films,
really. I've never been able to do it right. And there's something ter-
rific about that. There's something good about being a failure — it
keeps you going. I mean, you look for it, to do it right; and I felt I
wouldn't spend that much energy or that much effort in still photog-
raphy anymore. Well, you repeat yourself anyhow. There are a few
essential ideas that an artist has, and you work with them all your
life. I think you have to make a conscious effort to at least get off of
it a little bit. You will always come back to it. I have a lot of good ideas
sometimes, but I forget some of them, or they get mixed up by becom-
Probably another reason I moved away from still photography is
because I do a lot of things intuitively. I felt I would get caught up in
being kind of analytical, and building onto it and perfecting it. I
didn't want to go on. I didn't want to hear about it anymore. As it
turned out, once I turned away from still photography, everybody got
really interested in me, and why I turned away from it. But the fact
that I don't do it anymore has to do with my temperament. It has to do
with my curiosity. I believe very much that an artist has to be very
curious. I mean about other things.
As a still photographer I wouldn't have to talk to anyone. I could
walk around and not say anything. You're just an observer; you just
walk around, and there's no need to communicate. And so you feel
that you don't have to use words. Whereas with films it becomes more
complicated— thinking in long durations, and keeping up a kind of
53 Robert Frank
I began filmmaking right after The Americans— 1959. This guy
said, "Let's go down to Florida with a camera— a 16mm camera — and
you make a little film there, like your photographs." So I went down
there, and I shot about fifteen rolls, about a half hour's worth of film.
And then I came back to New York and I didn't have any money to
develop it, and I put it away. I kept thinking about what I had done
down there, and it's funny. I thought, "I've done the same thing as I
did in the photographs. I photographed the same scenes and the same
people." I have never developed the stuff. I just thought a lot about it.
It was a terrific lesson, and I think it taught me that I didn't want at
all to make a film that would look like my photographs— that would
have any connection with them. That was probably not too good a de-
cision right away, because that's when all the failures came march-
ing in. I mean, I thought I could work with actors, which I couldn't.
So maybe it would have been better if I had made some kind of docu-
mentary films in the beginning.
Are you satisfied with your failures in film?
I'm satisfied that I've done them. I guess I would have been happier if
they had been successful, but I believe very strongly, the main thing
is to do it. I just looked at a film that I'd done maybe five or six years
ago. It was a film called Life Raft Earth which was a straight docu-
mentary on a demonstration in California, organized by the Whole
Earth Catalogue people. They fasted for many days in a parking lot.
I didn't like the film too well after I finished it— I thought it not very
well photographed. And now I like it quite a bit. I thought it was very
valuable to me. I'd made a record of what happened, and I think that
way it's satisfying. Even a failure can be quite important, and maybe
it will turn around and not be such a failure. After all, when the book
The Americans first came out, it wasn't very well received at all. They
wouldn't publish it. They thought it was terrible— anti- American,
un-American, dirty, overexposed, crooked.
Did you have the same experience with the book as you did with the
film— sort of stepping back after a few years and feeling better about
No, I was sure about the book. But with the films, I'm never sure. Well,
I've made a film about the Rolling Stones and the tour, and that's a
film I feel pretty sure about. I feel it's true. You know, when you do
something, you have to feel that. I knew the photographs were true.
They were what I felt, they were completely intuitive. There was no
thinking. That feeling has stayed with me ; I never waivered from that.
When I did The Americans I was very ambitious. I knew I wanted
to do a book, and I was deadly serious about it, and somehow things
j ust happened right. It was the first time I had seen this country, and
it was the right mood. I had the right influences— I knew Walker's
photographs, I knew what I didn't want, and then that whole enor-
mous country sort of coming against my eyes. It was a tremendous
experience, and I worked, but it came naturally to show what I felt,
seeing those faces, those people, the kind of hidden violence. The
country at that time— the McCarthy period— I felt it very strongly.
54 Robert Frank
Walker Evans, Outdoor Advertising
Sign near Baton Rouge, Louisiana,
Robert Frank, Covered Car, Long
Beach, California, The Americans, 1959.
There were a lot of juke-boxes in The Americans. Were they an inten-
tional symbol of the fifties?
I guess it was something new that I had never seen, really, and I was
impressed with that. I think I like pictures that would convey a sound.
Maybe it has something to do with that. You would look at the photo-
graphs, and maybe you would hear the sound come out. I don't know,
but probably it was like a symbol that I saw over and over again. I
like the picture that has the television set in it. I think I always like
pictures that have that element in it — that you would hear the sound,
or imagine the sound.
Somebody asked me the other day why I never talked about what
happened to me on that trip. I never really did, and it was sort of
55 Robert Frank
curious that I never talked about it, so I told them a few things. Like
in McGee, Arkansas, you know, they arrested me. I was driving early
in the morning on a little country road, and the cops came, stopped
my car, and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm on a Guggen-
heim Fellowship, and I'm traveling around photographing the coun-
try." The guy said, "Guggenheim? Who is that?" So they pulled me
in. They said, "We got to arrest you," and I said, "What for?" and
they said, "Never mind," and kept me in jail for almost three days. I
didn't know anybody; they could have killed me. It's pretty scary, and
I think that somehow came through in the photographs — that vio-
lence I was confronted with. Besides that, I had the influence of Life
magazine. I wanted to sell my pictures to them, and they never did
buy them. So I developed a tremendous contempt for them, which
How did that contempt for Life help you?
As an artist today I somehow feel that you have to be enraged. I
mean, besides the intuition I had and how the country affected me,
I also didn't want to produce what everybody else was producing. I
wanted to follow my own intuition and do it my way, and not make
any concession — not make a Life story. That was another thing I
hated. Those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.
Are you still enraged?
No, I think your rage goes down comparatively as you get older. The
only photographer that I think has steadily shown new work and
good work is Bill Brandt. But most of the great photographers, like
Cartier-Bresson — compared to his early work — the work in the past
twenty years, well, I would rather he hadn't done it. That may be too
harsh, but I've always thought it was terribly important to have a
point of view, and I was always sort of disappointed in him that that
was never in his pictures. He traveled all over the goddamned world,
and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happen-
ing other than the beauty of it, or just the composition. That's cer-
tainly why Life gave him big assignments. They knew he wouldn't
come up with something that wasn't acceptable.
56 Robert Frank
Robert Frank, Drive-in Movie, Detroit.
The Americans, 1959.
Robert Frank, The Lines of My Hand,
Robert Frank, Filmstrip, Me and My
Brother, 1965-68. The Americans, 1969,
57 Robert Frank
I remember Life once gave me an assignment. I went with Ker-
ouac to pick up his mother. We wanted to get some money for the trip
to Florida, so I said, "Let's get some money from Life." We went there,
and they said, "Alright, Kerouac will write a story, and you'll photo-
graph." So we did it, and I showed them the photographs, and the guy
said, "Well, this looks like Russia." I never forgot that.
How did Lines of My Hand come about? Were you moved by this
same contempt for Life?
There's a Japanese edition of that book that explains it very well.
These two Japanese came, whom I'd never seen before, and they said,
"We want to do a book of your photographs." We became quite good
friends — we have a correspondence, and I felt I really wanted to give
them something that would tell them about myself. So they made a
book that's a little bit different than the American edition — it's a very
expensive book: it's big and elaborate, and it's much better than the
American edition. But then again, it's a book that goes back. It's all
looking back. And I don't want to do it anymore.
Are you bored with stills?
Well, I looked at the exhibition here; somehow boredom is a rough
word to use. I looked at Mili's stuff, and that certainly bores me. I
liked what Smith wrote about the photographs — why he photo-
graphs, what he believes. I wouldn't be bored with him because he's
obsessed with it. I'm never bored when I feel an obsession in some-
body. I'm bored with the aesthetics of photographs, but then I think
Walker's photographs are like jewels. They stay the same. I'm not
bored with that. I'm trying to define how I am bored with photo-
graphs. I'm sort of bored with mine.
If I continued with still photography, I would try to be more hon-
est and direct about why I go out there and do it. And I guess the only
way I could do it is with writing. I think that's one of the hardest
things to do — combine words and photographs. But I would certainly
try it. It would probably fail; I have never liked what I wrote about
my photographs yet. That would be the only way I could justify going
out in the streets and photographing again.
Does the film medium allow you to be more "honest and direct"?
I think film is more of a living thing — more of an instant communica-
tion between people. If I were to show a film, it would be a very definite
statement. That just appeals to me more now — to have that immedi-
ate response. Photographs leave too much open to bullshit. There's
too much aesthetics involved — too much peripheral talk. I would go
out, and I would photograph, and I would come and put the photo-
graphs, like twenty of them, on the table here. And you could look at
them, and you could pick up more than two, or the whole thing, and
nothing definite could be said about them right away. There would
be these discussions; you know — it's a good print, or this photograph
is good after this one. You can look between the photographs, and I
can talk about them and influence you while you're looking. I would
never talk while the film runs. Everybody has to look at the film the
same way — you have to sit in a dark room, and there's no way out.
You either close your eyes or look at it. And it isn't anymore a ques-
tion of whether the photograph is good or bad. It's whether I got
through with that film what I wanted to say.
58 Robert Frank
Do you think that it has something to do with the fact that film is a
couple of more elements closer to how we experience life — in that it
has movement, and it has sound? That it's more complex?
I would justcall it truer. It's more stepping in. That's one thing I found
in my films. Although it's true that I often feel like an observer, I'm
still in it. I'm part of it, definitively. And it's hard to see what part
you're in as a photographer. I think Smith is a good example. He is
in it. His obsession — I feel that in his photographs. But for ninety- -
nine per cent of the photographers it's a game. A game with aes-
thetics or taste, or artistry like Gibson, or jokes like Erwitt, tricks like
Mili, fashion like Penn. I mean who else? Name somebody and I'll say
something nasty about them. Only the people who are obsessed
should continue with photography. Arbus — she was obsessed with
her life. A girl I met in New York, a student of Arbus, said to me,
"Well you know, I really got mad at Diane Arbus, because she treated
our photographs just like she treated the people she photographed.
We would put our picture up on the wall and Diane would look at
the picture, and she would say, 'Oh, how interesting. Where did you
meet that woman, and where did she come from, and what's going
on here?' " And the girl was very pissed. She said, "I didn't get any-
thing from her." And I found that very strange. I mean, that's the
way Arbus was. That's what got her to get these pictures of these
people. It's that curiosity that one has to have.
Anybody who is going to be an artist has to be curious. He's got to
go out and do his own thing. If you talk to a student, and the student
is any good, has any guts, he will not do what you tell him. And it
usually works out that those students are the ones that you really
get interested in, and they will get something from you. That's the
way I can help as a teacher. I can help those few.
When students bring in their films, I can put my finger on some-
thing important right away that goes on inside them. The films are
somehow more revealing than photographs. It's because the film-
maker cannot get away with that instant that might be accidental.
He's got to come up with three minutes, and you see there how he
feels, how he goes back, how he looks away, how he runs to some-
thing else, or how confused he is looking around. And the same thing
happens when I show my movies — the personal movies that deal
with my life. I've done two or three of them, and after the light goes
on and I'm out there, I really feel like I've taken my clothes off, in a
way. I feel like I've really shown a lot. And some people understand
it, and some people don't. But I've never felt that as a photographer.
I've never felt like I've given that much. And in a way, that's one
thing teaching taught me — to be more generous with myself.
How do you teach film?
We just make films. That's all I'm interested in. I can't just sit there
and talk. I give the students a theme. I say, "Make a film about or-
anges. ' ' So they think about it, and some write a script or a little story
board, some just go out, some don't know and just sit there and look
at you. Or I make a film. Like I said, "I'm going to make a film, and I'm
going to title it '1981 Viet Orphans.' " I got to know an eight-year-old
half-Chinese boy, and I sat him on a table. I explained to the stu-
dents what I would do — I just made it up. I gave the boy a big knife,
and so this guy's cutting all the vegetables I have there, asparagus,
59 Robert Frank
everything. He's just hacking this food apart. I guess this runs about
three minutes, and that's the film I made. I haven't gotten it back,
but I'll put it on the projector, look at it, and we'll talk about it. The
boy got really furious, and that's where I wanted the film to go.
Today you can go out and buy your capsule, your cartridge of
Super-8 film for three dollars and fifty cents, put it in your camera,
and shoot your stuff. You bring it to the drugstore and it comes back
in three days, and you look at it. It's like you use a pencil: you write
down what you feel, what you think. Then you can talk about it. Then
I can explain about the cutting, and say, "Why did you do it that way?
I would do it this way." But what I teach really is to pick up the cam-
era and have the confidence to say something you feel strongly about.
I've thought a lot about teachers— people who teach photography,
people who have tenure from colleges. I've been thinking a lot about
Callahan. I wonder about anybody that teaches for that long. I don't
see how you can keep it up. You must become very uninspired by it.
If you're an artist, I think that the university world is not good. I think
the real world is better. You have to be against the system in some
way. How do you do that? That's the question. You're not going to do
it here, or in any school. That much I know. Because this is where the
system is taught, and you're a part of it, and I'm a part of it. And I ^
don't want to be a part of it. But I'm here. I'm being paid. And that's
my thing; that's the whole thing that I have to offer— that I wasn't
part of it. I'm just trying to tell you here what makes me tick. What
else am I going to do? Theorize about black and white values?
I just feel that the universities are really very protected com-
pounds or factories, or whatever, and that's why I wonder about Cal-
lahan. He keeps on working, and produces that good work. But maybe
the work isn't good at all, because he's made this carefully planned
move, and he's j ust perfecting something which is his own vision.
And he's perfecting it so beautifully because he's in that beautifully
perfected place to begin with. And I hate that. I wish that he would
photograph something else. I've seen a show at the Light Gallery, and
it's quite beautiful. He prints quite nicely. But I found it deadly. Not
in a good way. But I'm not talking against him. It's the aesthetics of
Do you think that photography today has become overrun by aes
No, I think a lot of young people have turned away from that. I know
a number of young people who photograph and there are no aesthet-
ics involved— they take pictures without looking in the viewfinder.
It's just gotta be done. They often don't develop it, but it's something
they carry with them, and when they feel like it, they take a few pic-
tures. Maybe later on they'll take them out and do something with
them. I think eventually some body of work will come out anyhow,
that will express something very strong. Maybe it will take longer,
but they're not in a hurry that way.
But then they're not obsessed, either.
Well, that's true, but I think it will come later. I think it's good that
today people do a lot of different things— study architecture, or play
music, or write a book. And I like it very much when p 3 ople write with
photographs. That's a very hard thing to do. When I started to use
60 Robert Frank
the Super-8mm camera, I took footage, and I'd often run the whole
film through the camera. Then I'd wind the film back, and then I'd
write some sentences on black acetate — just burn it out. I'd put it on
a light box, and I'd put that film back that I'd run backwards, and I'd
sort of know what was on the film, and I'd put sentences over the
whole picture. I mean, it's sort of a destroyed picture. I did that for
a while, and I sort of liked it. Those films are somehow simple, like ex-
ercises. They're just takes, and they're very satisfying, and in that
way they might be like photographs. I put them away and didn't look
at them for three years, and they were very true. Those sentences
made a lot of sense later. I guess a lot of photography today deals with
your personal life. It records it in some way — what you see, or your
environment or travels. It's not so much that you want to make beau-
tiful photographs. It's something else, and that appeals to me.
I'm not interested in taking a beautiful photograph. I don't mean
that there's no room for it; I just don't want to do it. For example, I live
in a very beautiful place. I could get a camera, and make a very beau-
tiful picture. It could be almost as good as Ansel Adams. But I don't
want to take a beautiful picture, and I can't, really. It makes me feel
good to look at it. It wouldn't make me feel good to take that picture.
I don't believe in it anymore — beauty, aesthetics. I think it is crazy
if you are a photographer, and the only idea that you have is that you
want to be an artist. And that's what I would object to in somebody
like Ralph Gibson. That is transparent in his work — wanting to make
"art." Every picture is "art": meaning, depth, space, all these words.
And some photographs are quite beautiful and memorable. To me
photography is life. It has to deal with life. And there's another thing
— "good" or "bad." Maybe one shouldn't make any distinction be-
tween film and photography when talking about it. You know, it's
"good" photography — maybe it's just important to do it. It's impor-
tant to do a film; it's probably harder to do that. It means more think-
ing, more preparation. When you do photographs, you can go around,
put it together after two years, send out all the postcards, and put it
on the wall. Like in the Stones film, it was either do it or get out. Often
photography can be in-between, either-or.
I've done Nova Scotia with the movie camera. I've gone from left
to right, when it snowed, when it hailed and then when the wind was
blowing, and I plan to use that in some way. It's not the beautiful pho-
tograph. It j ust means a passage of time to me. I'm working on a film
about my daughter, and another friend of mine who died, and I plan
to use that, like time is going by. But I mean, it's beautiful to be alive,
but life isn't that beautiful.
In an interview with Walker Evans, you talked about DeKooning
and Kline, and the energy that was in New York in the fifties with the
abstract expressionists. Do you feel that this sort of energy is neces-
sary for a lot of people to get together and make a movement?
Sometimes, you know, what I'm talking about is not what I mean. But
I was talking about a lifestyle that impressed me. It was like a politi-
cal stand. At that time I think the abstract painters were suffering.
They were having a hard time. And they totally believed in what they
were doing. They were a really strong group. All that photographers
talked about at that time was how to make money, how to get into
magazines. It was a relief to go into a group that was not interested
61 Robert Frank
Josef Koudelka, Okres Hnusta, 1967,
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Walker Evans, Subway Portrait, 1938-
41, Many Are Called, 1966.
Robert Frank, Funeral, St. Helena,
South Carolina, The Americans, 1959.
62 Robert Frank
in that way. And in that way it has changed a lot, because painters
have become very successful and very commercial. I have been asked
several times to produce a portfolio of my photographs, and I never
wanted to, because I somehow am against a certain preciousness. I
don't mind if a gallery sells some of my prints, and they go some-
where, and I get some money. But to make a business of it — to print
fifty portfolios and sell them for two thousand dollars, and they're all
in a box with tissue between them — I don't want to do it. It's deadly.
I don't want to have an exhibition, either, because that's deadly too.
Museums are . . . well, they're not deadly, but for me it would be back
to the old work again. Dig it all up, have it printed up.
Well this museum guy I Szarkowskil — I guess he will be interest-
ing to listen to. I haven't been to the museum in a long time. I like
what he's showing now — the Hungarian photographer Koudelka.
I'd like to see the Bacon show at the Met. I like his paintings a lot; I
get the message. I don't know. The museum is sort of a tastemaker.
It's very powerful, and anything that powerful I mistrust in a way.
Well you have your own sense of power, your sense of purity . . .
I think my asset is only that I sort of know who I am. I know what I can
do — what I can do well. As an artist, what have you got? No power,
nothing. In the end, power I think is measured in dollars. I think of
the power that I have encountered in artists that I know. When they
get successful, they make factories out of their art. A guy like Indi-
ana, say, builds up his empire. Warhol. I think Warhol is a very im-
portant artist; I have great respect for him. The more power you get,
you know, it seems the weaker you get as an artist. I often think that
the best work you've done is the work you've done when you had no
power, really. When you had no name. As a teacher I would just try
to get people to get up the courage to do it, not to be afraid that they
would fail, just that they tried, that's all. I certainly wouldn't want
them to be like me, or make films like me.
Well, feeling like that is part of what people pick up from you, and
so that is your influence.
I guess that is powerful, but I never looked at it that way. I'm not con-
scious of it. Whereas with the Stones, every second, you see that tre-
mendous power that they have. Actually, everybody around them is
afraid of them — their friends, everybody. What can they do? They
can kill you. It's as simple as that. They can beat you to a pulp and
tell you to get out. They can do anything.
How did you go about making the Stones film? Did you get to know
them very well before you started shooting?
No, I didn't. I made a record cover for them, and Mick Jagger sort of
liked me. They called me up in Nova Scotia. I said to them, "That's the
camera I want." They bought the camera, and they said, "You do the
film. " There was never any more talk about it. I j ust got paid, and they
let me do whatever I wanted to, but it was the agreement that I would
finish and give them the film. They have the say whether it's going to
come out or not.
We went on tour with them in 1972. It's pretty interesting to get
to know somebody as powerful as Jagger, or that group. So much
money, so much power. It's sort of frightening. It's a frightening film
in that way. And if I could have shown what really went on, it would
63 Robert Frank
have been horrendous — not to be believed. The film is a pretty
down-trip film. They weren't too happy about it, but Jagger is very
straight. He said, "You did the film, that's the way you see it; although
that's not the way I see it, that's not the way it really is." I like him
personally, and he's quite an amazing guy. He has a fantastic head,
and he's really in control. They're rough people to be with. You've got
to keep up. If you can't keep up, it's too bad.
You seem to have been a stranger in their world, and there seems to
be an element of the stranger in both your films and photography.
How do you feel about that?
Well, I think that's quite a good observation. I guess I am an observer,
in a way. It also had to do with the fact that a lot of my work deals
with myself, especially my films. It's very hard to get away from my-
self. It seems, almost, that's all I have. That's sort of a sad feeling. But
that feeling of being a stranger— it has to do with years of photog-
raphy, where you walk around, you observe, and you walk away, and
you begin to be a pretty good detective.
I was very happy to make the Stones film, because it got me away
from myself. But then again, the film turned out to be about my
friend. We both made the film together, but he really sort of lived
what the Stones imagined they were living. It was a drug scene, but
he really did it in front of the camera, and I lived with him, so I made
the film on him, part of it. And on Jagger and Richards. Those were
the three people that interested me. I wasn't interested in the music
at all, I mean the performance, but Jagger knew that. I guess that's
one of the reasons he liked me.
You spoke earlier of your mistrust for powerful institutions, like the
museum. Do you feel the same sort of mistrust toward Jagger?
There are two images in my mind. On the one hand, I admire him be-
cause of his ability as a performer, his capability as an administrator
of such a powerful business venture. But then on the other hand, it
would be the same for a politician whom I would mistrust. In the end
it would turn me off completely. I would have nothing to do with it,
because in the end he would destroy me. Because I don't play his
game; I'm not in his class. All the personalities in that group are espe-
cially rough. They are hard on each other, they are completely with-
out feeling for anyone around them. Anything goes to get the work
going and keep it moving. And that's a strong experience to go
through — to see that, and how it works.
Well, let's talk about John Morris. I knew Morris from when he
was with Ladies' Home Journal. He promised me work, and he never
gave me work. He said, "Look, I think that you can get into Magnum,
and I'm going to bring them all down here." And Cartier-Bresson,
and Capa, and Erwitt— they all came down, and they looked at my
pictures, and they didn't say much. But then he called me back a few
days later, and he said, "Well, we will take you." He lined up an ar-
rangement for me, and I would make a certain amount of money,
and I really couldn't have done it. I felt that they didn't really want
me, and it was more a personality thing. And he said to me, "You
know, you should learn to take more vertical pictures, because we
work for magazines." I never forgot that.
64 Robert Frank
You did fashion work, too, didn't you?
When I came here, that was the first job I got. Brodovitch of Harper's
Bazaar hired me. He was a very important photography teacher at
that time, 1948 or 1949, and he had these classes, and he asked me to
come. I was very thankful to him, because he got me that job, but I
discovered that in his classes, all he wanted to get was ideas for fash-
ion photography— new ideas. And I dropped out right away. I was
never any good at fashion photography. I had no interest in clothes,
which you have to have if you're a fashion photographer. That was
interesting about Brodovitch, that he thought he could make me into
a fashion photographer. He had the same idea about Cartier-Bresson.
Can you talk a little about Walker Evans?
Yeah, well, he helped me a lot when I was starting. He helped me get
the Guggenheim. He never said much, but he's a guy who doesn't
have to say much, but you know he understands what you're about.
So we had a good thing that way. He came up to Nova Scotia about
three years ago. He had recovered from an operation, and he came
up there to visit. I took him to all the old houses— the people live just
like in the thirties or forties in the States, and he was overjoyed. He
photographed and photographed. And I liked to see him so happy
about photographing, but at the same time, I felt that I wouldn't
want to do that when I'm older.
I once came to see Walker at the office at Fortune. It was when
Agee had died, 1955, around the time I got the Guggenheim. Agee was
his best friend, and I remember him just sitting on his desk in front of
a window and looking down on Rockefeller Center— you know, where
they ice skate?— and he just sat there and he cried. I was very moved
by it. I went with him on a trip to photograph mills in New England,
and his wife had left him, and he was very sad then. He was very in-
telligent, but he didn't play the intellectual, although I'm sure he had
it. He went to very good schools, and he talked a lot about breeding.
He had class and style. A lot of California painters are certainly tre-
mendously influenced by Walker's photographs. The whole pop art
thing is very strongly influenced by photography.
Walker couldn't stand Steichen. What about Steichen? Do people
talk about him? I think he had a terrific understanding about art-
painting and sculpture. I think his judgment about that is probably
better than about photography. But if there's one thing I dislike in
photography, it's sentimentality. And Steichen to me must be— how
do you say it? — the personification of sentimentality. I can't stand
What do you think of Dorothea Lange's work?
I like her work. I remember, I went to see her when she was very sick,
in California, and she sat there in her bed and we talked about things.
Then, all of a sudden, she said, "I just photographed you." And you
know, I was looking around, and I understood. She took a picture of
me in her mind. And that was a very nice thing she said.
My favorite photographers are Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Doro-
thea Lange, and I like Emmet Gowin. These are sort of classic pho-
tographers, so I'm, you know, I'm an old man. I like the classic stuff.
I can't talk about photographs, really. There's a certain verbal gift
you have to have. What could I teach you except to tell you about my-
self? Whatever help that would be. You know, one of the worst
things an artist can do is talk about his work.
65 Robert Frank
Frederick Wiseman was born in Boston
in 1932 and grew up in Brookline,
Massachusetts. He graduated from
Williams College in 1951 and from Yale
Law School in 1954; in 1973 he received
an honorary degree in Humane Letters
from the University of Cincinnati. He
has practiced and taught law in Paris
and Massachusetts and is a member of
the Massachusetts Bar Association.
Since 1967, Wiseman has made ten
films as an independent filmmaker,
and he is now the General Manager of
Zipporah Films, Incorporated, Boston.
His films have won numerous awards,
and all except Titicut Follies and High
School have been aired on public tele-
vision. Wiseman's latest film, Meat,
concerns the day-to-day activities at
one of the largest feed lot and packing
plants in the country.
66 Frederick Wiseman
For the last nine years, I have been working on a series of films
that are loosely defined as part of an institutional series, with no pre-
cise definitions of either institution or series. I became a filmmaker
because the idea had interested me for a long time and I was grow-
ing increasingly bored with and indifferent toward practicing and
teaching law. While I was teaching, I used to take students to correc-
tional institutions where their future clients might be sent, and one
of those places was the hospital for the criminally insane at Bridge-
water. I vividly remember my first trip to Bridgewater in 1959. 1
thought at the time that it might be a good film subject, and it be-
came the subject of my first film Titicut Follies.
I had seen so many films that followed one charming individual,
whether it were a movie star or rock star, that I thought it would be
more interesting to make a film in which the place were the star.
Essentially, what I have been doing since then is a form of natural
history. I try to look at what is going on to discover what kind of
power relationships exist and differences between ideology and the
practice in terms of the way people are treated. The theme that
unites the films is the relationship of people to authority.
I pick an institution; by that I mean simply a place that has certain
kinds of geographic limitations and where at least some of the people
have well-established roles. I generally try to select an institution
that is defined as good within the system in which it operates. For
example, in High School I deliberately rejected a ghetto or inner city
school because everybody knew they had a lot of problems; rather I
picked a school that turned out to be one of the two best schools in
Philadelphia. The same thing happened in Titicut Follies, because
Bridgewater, horrible as it was, was considered one of the better
prisons of its kind in the country. If you don't start with a place that
is defined at least by the world in which it exists as good, then the sit-
uation is too easy and not complicated enough to merit a year's work.
Titicut Follies was financed by a lab in New York. A documentary
can cost a lot of money or very little. To keep the cost down, you have
to use the same kind of judgment necessary in any good business
practice. When I began I didn't have any money to lose, in the sense
that if I went into debt, I had the choice of working to pay off the debt
or going bankrupt, and I was willing to take that risk. A lab was will-
ing to gamble with me and gave me credit, a long deferment. In fact,
I didn't pay the lab on the Follies for six years; but they were willing
to go along with it because in the meantime I had given them busi-
ness on my other films. It's not easy, but it's not terribly difficult to get
a lab to go along with you if you want to take the risk, which is a
severe one. And if you go bankrupt, which is one way of avoiding
the debt, that's the end of your getting credit in the movie business.
So it's not done lightly.
There's a lot of mystification about movies, a special vocabulary
that takes about twenty-five minutes to learn which people use, just
like any special vocabulary, to exclude other people. The money issue
in film is certainly crucial, but it's sometimes viewed as an obstacle
when it's not, especially since there's so much equipment around.
Many people have Eclairs and Nagras which they're not using most
of the time; you can usually borrow the equipment or rent it for a
small amount of money. People who work or teach in film schools fre-
quently have a lot of equipment available, or you can ask one of the
equipment supply houses in New York who in Boston has recently
67 Frederick Wiseman
bought equipment. In addition, raw stock can be obtained relatively
cheaply at, for instance, Defense Department auctions, if you're will-
ing to organize yourself and be a bit of an entrepreneur about wheel-
ing and dealing. You have to be very aggressive about all aspects of
it; you can then make a film for a relatively small amount of money.
The politics of getting permission is another issue which is some-
times very complicated and sometimes very easy. First I try to find
someone within the bureaucracy who wants to have a film made, for
reasons that correspond or in some way coincide with my own, who
then becomes an internal advisor on how to obtain permission to
make the film. He advises me on the initial responses to the request
to do the film and tells me whom to see and who has authority to
grant permission. I always offer to show any of my earlier films.
Although I would like to think that everybody has seen the films
and knows about them, the fact of the matter is that most of the
people of whom I ask permission have never heard of me nor seen
any of my films. It seems perfectly natural that somebody would
want to see what I've done elsewhere, but it's very rare that that hap-
pens. The only time my offer was taken up in any detail was with the
Army. They saw everything I had done before they gave me permis-
sion to make Basic Training.
Why I get permission, or why anybody gets permission, I don't
really know. I think it's a combination of passivity and vanity, pri-
marily vanity in that people are flattered that you're interested in
spending the time to photograph and record what they're doing,
and that their work will be presented on public television.
After having been granted permission, I write a letter to the head
of the institution outlining what I plan to do. Since I don't know in
advance exactly what will happen in the course of filming, I can't
say definitely what the final film will be, particularly since none of
the events are staged. I list as examples events that I think might
happen. In the same letter I also make clear that I have editorial
control over the film.
Before I begin filming, I usually spend a day or two trying to get a
sense of the place and particularly trying to find those people who
are making decisions and who have power over others. I don't be-
lieve in doing much research beyond that because, in a sense, the
shooting of the film is the reseaixh. There are usually no books that
have been written about the particular place where I'm making the
film, and in any event, I was a very bad student in foreign languages
in college and so I have a great deal of difficulty in reading in the
social sciences. Instead, I try to find some novels that are more or
less directed to the subject of the film to get a sense of what someone
else thought about a similar place. Usually, either the day I start, or
the day before, I have a notice placed on the bulletin boards so that
as many people as possible have access to information that a film is
being made, and so that everybody doesn't stop us in the corridor to
ask what the camera and tape recorder are for. If possible I may also
have the institution's bulletin or newsletter publish a notice about
Once you start shooting, you use a combination of judgment,
luck and good informants. I use informants in the best sense of the
word because I am very dependent on people within the institution
to tell me what's going on and what they think is relevant since I
really don't know that much about it. For example, I relied on the
68 Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman, Dean of Discipline
Punishing Student, High School, 1968.
Dean of Discipline in High School because he came up to me the
first day that I was there and said, "You ought to come to my office
at 9:15 in the morning and see the culprits line up outside the door."
That was a very inviting suggestion, so the next morning I went
down and the culprits, about twenty of them, were lined up outside
the door. Then his office became a difficult place to stay away from.
It was a particularly significant place to be, not only for its situation
comedy value, but also because the Dean of Discipline felt compelled
to rationalize to the students the reasons for whatever particular
punishment he was giving, revealing as he did so, some of the values
and ideologies of the institution. Similarly, a student came up to me
one day and said that I ought to come to his English class because
he thought he had a good English teacher, and it turned out to be
the teacher who read "Casey at the Bat." These are only two exam-
ples of what happens all the time.
The basic technique in filming is to hang around with a tape
recorder and a 16mm Eclair camera. All the equipment is hand held.
There are no artificial lights; you use natural lights and very fast
black and white Kodak double-x 72/22 film. I think black and white
film is more appropriate than color for these particular subjects. To
get good color, you would have to use lights and really control the
light, which you really can't do in this type of filming. For example,
an ambulance pulls up outside Metropolitan Hospital; somebody
comes crashing down the corridor in a stretcher. You don't know
which of the six emergency rooms you're going to go to, and even if
you did, you wouldn't know quite how the people were going to be
placed and, therefore, how you should light the room. A lot of extra
lights would make people too self-conscious. Black and white is more
appropriate for the look I want the film to have.
I don't do the shooting myself. I direct and do the sound, and work
with a cameraman. There are certain kinds of things you have to
have in every situation; you've got to have wide shots, you've got to
follow the action which means following whoever is talking, and
you've got to shoot for cutaways. I'm much freer to see what's going
69 Frederick Wiseman
on because I'm not shooting. The cameraman has got one eye on the
viewfinder and one eye on me, and I've got one eye on him and one
eye on what's going on. When it works it's like a little dance because
we're moving around the people that we're shooting; and at the same
time we have our own little signals for each other. My instinct is
always to shoot. Once you think something is okay you shoot even
though it might turn out to be no good because you can never predict
how an event will turn out. In the long run, it is really more economi-
cal to take the risk of shooting, ending up with a thirty to one ratio,
than to try to control it more completely and only shoot, say ten to
one, and not spend as much money. With a smaller ratio you won't
have as good a film because you won't have the range of choices that
you need in the editing. You shoot a lot of little incidental things
which you really don't yet know how you're going to use, but you
know they're going to be useful. You try to get as much of the general
activity as you can, not following any particular theory except for
your own instinct of what appears to be interesting, relevant or
I don't really think the presence of the camera affects people's
behavior because I don't think any of us has the capacity to suddenly
change our behavior and become something we're not. If we did have
that talent, we'd all be in the Old Vic, and most of us aren't such good
actors. I think that if the camera equipment makes people nervous,
the chances are that rather than try something new, they'll fall back
on forms of behavior they're comfortable with, that they think are
appropriate and natural for the situation. For example, in Law and
Order there's a sequence in which a cop finds a girl accused of pros-
titution in the basement of a hotel. There was no light at all in the
cellar, so we had to use a sungun. In front of the camera, the sungun
and the tape recorder the cop proceeded to strangle her, finally let-
ting her go just before she passed out. After she pulled herself
together she said to the cop, "You were trying to strangle me!", and
another cop said, "Oh, you're just imagining that." Now you could
presumably argue that had the camera not been there he might have
Frederick Wiseman, Law and Order,
70 Frederick Wiseman
killed her, but I don't think so. I think that he just felt that it was an
appropriate way to behave toward the girl.
A documentary filmmaker is no different from anyone who meets
a lot of people in the course of his work. To survive you have to
develop a sensitive bullshit meter. If you think someone is conning
you or putting it on for the camera, you stop shooting. And if you
only realize it in the editing, you don't use the footage. You're not
always right, but it's an issue that you have to be very aware of.
After a month or so of shooting, you may accumulate forty to fifty
hours of footage which will be edited to a film of perhaps eighty or
ninety minutes. It takes four to five weeks to synchronize the sound
and picture tracks after you return from shooting. While you're
doing that, you make up three by five cards or a notebook indexing
what's on every roll. By the time you finish, you know the material
reasonably well. Then you make up an outline against which you
work. During that process, you probably discard, at least tem-
porarily, about sixty percent of the material. At this point, I try to
make a list of those sequences which I think will be major to the film
and I begin to think about their relationship to each other.
Since the themes of a documentary evolve from the experience
of shooting and editing the material, you have to think through what
each sequence means to you in order to figure out whether to use it or
whether part of it will fit in the film. That is essentially what's in-
volved in the editing because you haven't had time to do that while
shooting. In the end there must be a rationale for why each segment
is where it is, what it's relationship is to the sequence before and
after and to the overall themes that are being developed.
In the process of editing I have left out sequences that might have
been good, not because they were too shocking or too emotionally
charged, but because they would have "loaded" the film too much.
For example, in High School the teacher who reads "Casey at the Bat"
gave a multiple choice test on Hamlet a few days later that went
something like: Hamlet loves Polonius, hates Polonius, is indifferent
to Polonius, check one. I thought that would be a bit unfair. I like
"Casey at the Bat" better and couldn't use them both.
The film begins to emerge only toward the last three or four
weeks of editing. Material which you originally thought useless
usually saves the film because it provides you with the cutaways, or
pauses, or whatever. For example, toward the end of the editing of
Hospital, I was concerned about the pacing of the film because I felt
there were too many big sequences too close to each other. I had not
yet used a series of corridor sequences, people hanging around in the
corridor or stretchers being taken down corridors, or ambulances
arriving. When they were put into the film they provided pauses be-
tween the long scenes, as well as some action which gave a rhythm
or pace to the material that it previously didn't have.
High School took me the least amount of time to edit — four
months, and Primate the most — fourteen months. One of the things
I was trying to do in Primate was to see to what extent you could tell
the story just by pictures. There was very little dialogue in Primate.
In most of my films there are about ninety pages of dialogue and in
Primate there are thirty-two.
Primate begins with shots of the government behaviorists and
ends with a space trip. There is a connection to be made between
that kind of research and that kind of result. One of the interesting
71 Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman, Drunken Man
Tied to Wheelchair to Keep Him from
Falling on the Floor, Hospital, 1970.
things about Yerkes is that it provides the opportunity to see the ap-
plication of the scientific method in two crucial kinds of situations
involving both behavioral and biological problems. And you see in
the film some of the implications of both kinds of research. One of the
curious things about Primate is that in many ways the concerns of
the scientists are exactly the same issues that concern the teachers in
High School, namely, how to control sexual and aggressive behavior.
I think my point of view is very strongly revealed in Primate, but it's
revealed structurally in the arrangement of the sequences.
Some documentary filmmakers don't feel you should edit at all.
I'm very much more interested in form than some other filmmakers,
and in tight control of the material. The whole effort is an attempt to
assert some kind of control over chaos. The form of the film is totally
fictional but it's based on a reality situation. A sequence in real time
might last an hour and a half of which you shoot fifty minutes and
end up using only three. That three minutes may come from the first,
the thirtieth and fortieth minute of the sequence. You are able to link
those three bits of dialogue together by use of cutaways. The result
is a sequence which is totally arbitrary in that it never existed in real
life, but it works in film terms. All the material is manipulated so that
the final film is totally fictional in form although it is based on real
events. Because it is a fictional form you have the same kind of prob-
lems that exist in writing a novel, or a play: problems of character-
ization, transition, point of view, etc. I am interested in the relation-
ship between various forms because in many ways I think there are
similarities in the techniques.
I don't think it's possible to make an objective documentary film,
or an objective anything. It's simply one person's version of an aspect
of reality that you've had a chance to photograph, record, think about
and try to structure. No two people can structure that in the same
way; no two people would think about it in exactly the same way. But
the effort in each case is to make a film that is fair to the experience
you had in making the film, to give a fair report on what you have
seen and felt and learned. That frequently is very different from the
point of view that you started out with. I haven't made a film yet in
which I haven't been surprised by the way it comes out.
72 Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman, Primate, 1974.
Frederick Wiseman, A Scientist Ex-
amines an Anesthetized Orangutan
Prior to Surgery, Primate, 1974.
Frederick Wiseman, Testing the
Effect of Refrigeration, Primate, 1974.
73 Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman, Primate, 1974.
Frederick Wiseman, Primate, 1974.
74 Frederick Wiseman
Ultimately, what you're trying to do, what you ask the audience
to do when they see the film, is to repeat that process, but clearly with
a much smaller amount of material, and to think through their own
relationship to what they're seeing and hearing. You're not telling
them what their particular response should be to any one sequence.
The issue of the audience response is something you really can't
have in mind while you're making the film. Once you start thinking
about the audience, you have to water down the material to reach the
lowest common denominator. At the risk of being arrogant, I always
assume that I am the audience. If I didn't do that, I'd be substituting
someone else's j udgment for my own, and the whole idea of this kind
of filmmaking is much too personal to do that.
In a Hollywood film there is usually a one-to-one relationship be-
tween a sequence and a point that it's making. In a documentary a
scene may be making four or five points at the same time. Take, for
example, the sequence in High School in which the home economics
teacher is instructing the girls about how to be good fashion design-
ers and seamstresses. On the one hand she is totally undercutting
them by telling them all that their legs are too thick for the stuff and
that there is an appropriate way for women to walk and to dress and
that they can't wear certain kinds of clothes if their legs happen to
be thicker than those of a Vogue model. Your reaction to that scene is
very much dependent on your own values. If you agree with the
values of the teacher, then you think she's doing an excellent job. If
you think there is something savage about the way she is cutting the
girls down and that there is no such thing as a uniform ideal of
beauty or attractiveness, then your attitude toward the teacher is
very different. That's characteristic of all sequences in documentary
You are asking the audience to work in much the same way that
you have worked in putting the film together. Frequently there are
amazing results. When Louise Day Hicks saw High School, for ex-
ample, she said that she really liked the film, that it had the bitter-
sweet quality of life. You know, I thought that was fine. She hap-
pened to be on the other side of all the issues. I didn't really take that
as any failure in the point of view of the film because I think that the
point of view of the film was quite clear. But her ideology, or values,
or whatever you want to call it, was so totally different from mine
that she saw the film in a completely different light. That often hap-
pens in documentary film when you are trying to make the film
reflect the complexity of the reality you're dealing with. The reaction
to the film is very much dependent on one's own values.
I've made eight films, and only three of the eight institutions have
been unhappy with the results, and then only as a consequence of the
reviews. When they first saw the film they always liked it and thought
it was fair. They reacted more to the reviews and the way they were
characterized in the reviews than they did to the film itself. Except
for Titicut Follies, High School and Primate, the people who gave me
permission and who were in the film have generally liked them.
Once the film is made there is the problem of distribution. I did
not become involved in distribution to affect social change. I set up
my own distributing company six years ago because independent
filmmakers are constantly being cheated by film distributors. That's
not just paranoia; it happens all the time because the independent
filmmaker has no leverage. He may make one film a year or one film
75 Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman, High School, 1968.
Frederick Wiseman. Dean of Discipline
Punishing Student, High School, 1968.
Frederick Wiseman, Basic Training,
76 Frederick Wiseman
every five years and he usually doesn't have the money to send ac-
countants in to check the books or to figure out what's going on, and
typically, unless a 16mm film is very successful, once it is turned over
to a distributor, you rarely see any money.
After suing a distributor twice, and recovering, I decided that
instead of spending money on legal fees, I would rather hire someone
who likes the films and is aggressive about getting them distributed
on college campuses. The distribution is an enormous amount of
work, but if you're not willing to become involved with the business
aspects of filmmaking, you're going to be badly taken advantage of.
You have to know all about that in order to survive as a filmmaker.
When I first began making films I had a naive view that there was
some kind of one-to-one or direct connection between films of this
sort and social action or social change. Now I think that was totally
naive; there is no connection. In many ways that's probably just as
well because if one person were to make a film that would affect ten
people, someone else might be able to make a film that would affect
ten thousand people in particular ways that you may not like. I don't
want to have that kind of power. Ultimately I think it's both pre-
sumptuous on the part of the filmmaker and condescending to the
audience to think that any work is that powerful. If the films do any-
thing, they provide people with information which they may be in a
position to use at some point along the line along with other kinds of
information to influence the way they make a decision about some-
thing that's going on in society. Then the film becomes one of many
experiences that inform that decision. But I do not think that there's
any direct connection between a film and a series of change pro-
cedures. For example, Titicut Follies, which is perhaps the most
directly critical film I have done, had little impact on Bridgewater.
I had hoped that it would, but it certainly didn't. One indication of
that is the trial that took place in the Massachusetts Federal Court
in the fall of 1974, seven years after the Follies was made. Two in-
mates brought a suit to close down Bridgewater because of inad-
equate medical and psychiatric facilities, the lack of which was
documented in the film. I have a fairly skeptical view of people who
run around, as I once did, with wide eyes saying that they're really
going to bring about instant and immediate change.
All the films suggest ideas about how authority is exercised in this
society because the theme that unites the films is the relationship of
the individual to authority. And in each of the films you see different
illustrations of how power is exercised in various institutional set-
tings, and by implication, in other places and other situations. There
is a certain similarity between all the films. For example, the things
that the Dean of Discipline says in High School are almost word for
word what the company commander says in Basic Training. The dif-
ference between the formal and informal attitudes toward authority
cuts across all the films and says something, hopefully, not just about
the particular place where the film is made but about some larger
issues that relate to other places and people.
77 Frederick Wiseman
John Szarkowski was born in Ashland,
Wisconsin in 1925 and first began
photographing there eight years later.
He majored in art history at the Uni-
versity of Wisconsin and while he was
a student, worked as a darkroom as-
sistant and photographer in Frederica
Cutcheon's portrait studio in Madison.
In 1948, he became a staff photographer
at the Walker Art Center in Minnea-
polis, Minnesota. In 1951, he left to
become an instructor in photography
and art history at the Albright Art
School in Buffalo, New York.
Work on his first book, The Idea of
Louis Sullivan, began in Buffalo with
his photographs of the Prudential build-
ing. In 1953, he moved to Chicago, home
of many of Sullivan's buildings, where
he did promotional food advertise-
ments for a commercial studio. In 1954,
a Guggenheim Foundation grant
allowed him to concentrate his efforts
on the completion of his book.
After the publication in 1958 of The
Face of Minnesota, in which photo-
graphs and text were combined to cele-
brate the state's one-hundredth year,
Szarkowski moved to Washburn, Wis-
consin and was awarded a second Gug-
genheim grant to photograph Ontario's
Quetico wilderness. In 1962, he became
the Director of the Department of
Photography at the Museum of Modern
Art in New York.
John Szarkowski, Chicago Auditorium.
78 John Szarkowski
I would like to address myself to what may seem to be a positively
primitive question, and consider in an exploratory way the manner
in which photography has changed our understanding of the idea of
pictorial subject. The fact of the matter, if we are to begin on the basis
of full and open disclosure, is that those of us who have thought about
photography have not yet made a great deal of progress. Even in
terms of historical matters, our knowledge is shot full of if s and buts,
erasures, illegible words, missing chapters, and dubious conjectures.
Perhaps we should start back at the beginning and consider the re-
lationship in photography of subject and form.
Photography is a system of picture making in which subject and
form are identical and indistinguishable, in which the subj ect and the
picture are beyond argument the same thing. But what interests me
most about this would be a corollary which states that the function of
the photographer is to decide what his subject is. I mean that this is
his only function.
The kinds of choices that a photographer makes in the process
of defining his subject cover a broad spectrum, ranging from gross
choices to exquisitely subtle ones. Beginning on the gross end, the
photographer must decide whether he will work in his own backyard
or sail off to Egypt or to the moon. Once in Egypt, he has to decide
whether to photograph Egyptians or pyramids. From this point on,
the decisions become not more important, but subtler: which pyra-
mid? from what vantage point and in what light? in what relation to
the picture frame? with what combination of exposure and develop-
ment in order to achieve a j ust resolution of the conflicting claims of
surface texture, space, volume, and pattern? and then the decisions
bearing on the making of a print that will most closely approximate
the slippery memory of that true and ephemeral subject that was de-
fined on the site.
The degree of complexity that separates the decisions of Francis
Frith from those of Dorothea Lange, photographing a cotton picker in
Eloy, Arizona, almost a century later, is obvious enough. But I think
Francis Frith, The Pyramids of
79 John Szarkowski
Dorothea Lange, Migratory Cotton
Picker, Elroy, Arizona, 1940. The
Museum of Modern Art, Courtesy of
the Library of Congress.
the principle is the same. Choice, intuition, and the winds of chance
took Lange to Arizona. By passing a million other potential subjects,
she found her way to this particular plantation. There she chose to
ignore the landscape, architecture, the beautiful intricate machin-
ery, in order to concentrate on the men who worked there. Among
these she chose to photograph a group that included this man. She
made several exposures of him and his fellow laborers from a dis-
tance as they loaded their cotton. She then decided that she was not
yet finished; and she moved closer, homing in on this man, perhaps
because he had a good face, more likely, I think, because he was in a
good light. By this point, the question of what the subject is involves
choices in four dimensions which must be coordinated swiftly and
Garry Winogrand, Dallas, 1965. The
Museum of Modern Art.
80 John Szarkowski
If Lange's picture would have been inconceivable to Francis Frith,
I think this picture, this subject, by Garry Winogrand would have
been almost as startling to Lange. For while her subject might have
been at least approximately preconceived in verbal terms, the Wino-
grand picture depends on the recognition of coherence in the con-
fluence of forms and signs that could not, I think, have been antici-
pated by the most fertile imagination. This coherence cannot, in fact,
be understood in analytical terms while the photographer is working.
At this level of complexity, intelligence must become- visceral.
The history of photography as a radical picture making system,
can be defined as the history of the definition of new subjects. Some-
times these new subj ects are extensions of ideas that exist in latent
form in the work of exceptional photographers of an earlier genera-
tion. Sometimes they are genuinely primitive ideas mothered by a
new technical breakthrough or a new market demand. But in either
case, the picture's new meaning and its new appearance are the same.
I would like now to show you examples from three bodies of work,
very different in their motivation and appearance. I'll ask you to
judge for yourselves whether or not their content is separable from
their aspect. I will show you a group of classical newspaper photo-
graphs, some pictures by the great French photographer, Eugene
Atget, and some recent photo postcards by a young American pho-
tographer named Bill Dane.
News photographs might well be an especially rewarding area for
one wishing to study photography in its most basic and unadorned
form. Perhaps the reason why this has not been done is that there has
been considerable doubt as to whether or not these pictures are really
art. If it were possible to avoid this question, I would of course much
prefer to, simply because it is not the most interesting or the most
useful question. But since it is probably not possible to avoid it, let
me answer it quickly and say, "Yes, of course they are art." Not ter-
ribly fine art, perhaps, but then fineness is not the only artistic virtue.
Before attempting to define what their subject matter is, we
should first clear the air of certain misconceptions by defining what
it is not. The subject of news photographs is not news. The simplest
way of demonstrating this once and for all would be to persuade a
newspaper publisher to reprint, one year after their original appear-
ance, all of the photographs of one year earlier, with slightly varied
captions. I don't really think anyone would notice the difference. I do
not mean to suggest that newspaper photographs within more or less
standardized categories are identical. On the contrary, they are no
more identical than the visitations, annunciations, nativities, cruci-
fixions, depositions, resurrections, and assumptions of fifteenth cen-
tury Italian paintings. News photographs are, however, similar from
day to day and year to year, and it is partly in this similarity that
their interest lies. A social historian or an anthropologist could
surely find much to interest him in the structure and cultural mean-
ing of news photographs, but my own interest is a good deal more
modest. I am interested in their character as pictures, by which I
mean their iconographic as well as their graphic patterns.
I would like now to suggest several formal characteristics that
seem proper to the entire genre and consider them briefly one by one.
The pictures are possessed of great narrative ambiguity: without the
caption one is never quite sure what is happening. They are hierar-
chical and formal: what information comes from the picture itself is
81 John Szarkowski
given within the confines of a rigidly conventionalized technique.
They are fragmentary and symbolic: most news photographs are, in
one sense or another, close-ups that do not pretend to describe con-
text. They are in large part ceremonial: they deal with events that
would not have occurred had they not been newsworthy.
First, these pictures are identified by great narrative ambiguity.
Look at this picture and decide for yourself what specific drama is
being played out. The young woman on the right is the daughter of
the gentleman on the left who has j ust confessed to murdering his
wife, the girl's mother. Or, he is the father of the girl's late lover
whom she has just shot. Or, he is the detective who has just arrested
her on the charge of possessing a gun without a license. Or perhaps
the gun has nothing to do with the case, but was left there by the
policeman who lent his desk to the distinguished family solicitor on
the left. Or perhaps the photographer put the gun there to make it a
better picture. I apologize for not being able to tell you which, if any,
of these stories is true. We did try, but no one seems to remember
what the picture was once supposed to have meant. It is a picture that
describes the smell and texture of bad trouble and personal tragedy.
Its concern is not history, but poetry.
Ed Morgan, Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph,
These pictures are not natural, but formal. Their true content is
determined largely by the photographic and journalistic disciplines
that create them; or to put it more simply, their function follows their
form. For example, a classic news photograph describes an event that
takes place in a flat and shallow space about twelve feet in front of
the camera. This plane is determined not, of course, by the objective
nature of historical events, but by the preferences of photographers'
equipment, the limitations of newspaper reproduction, and the pace
at which the photographer works, all of which encourage trust in
tried and true formulas.
82 John Szarkowski
John J. Reidy, Murderer Steps into
Patrol Wagon, New York Daily Mirror
Paul Bernius, Stephen Baltz, 11, of
Willmette, Illinois, lies critically in-
jured on Seventh Avenue, near Ster-
ling Place, Brooklyn. He was the sole
survivor in a two plane collision which
claimed more than 130 lives in the
worst air tragedy in New York City,
New York Daily News, 17 December
Photographer unknown, Charles Van
Doren Winning $104,500 on the T.V.
quiz show, "Twenty-One," UPI,
21 January 1959.
These pictures are fragmentary and symbolic. Sometimes they
are symbolic of genuinely significant events; much more often they
symbolize conditions of life that are no more newsworthy than tears.
The generic morals of these pictures are generally simple to the point
of banality; but the pictures themselves are not banal, for each re-
tells the silly old story with a slightly different set of specifics, a dif-
ferent texture of feeling, a different unique face, a new gesture. No
two felons cower quite the same; every detective wears his superior-
ity with a slightly different style; the ubiquitous greedy spectator is
unendingly fascinating. In the best of these pictures these various
83 John Szarkowski
signs and symbols come together with perfect economy and surprise
to create not merely a catalogue of visual description, but a picture.
Most of these photographs are ceremonial. A good share of them
are frankly ceremonial, by which I mean that the ceremony would
have occurred in approximately the same form even if photogra-
phers had not been there to publicize it, as illustrated by baseball
games, prize fights, and courtroom trials. Other kinds of events, once
extemporized according to the logical requirements of the event it-
self, are now planned according to the requirements of photography.
Most news is managed news. Generally, however, the news is man-
aged not to conform to a philosophical or a political standard so much
as it is managed to conform to the requirements of the techniques by
which one reports it. In our literate past, many events, doubtless,
were arranged or rearranged so that they might be written about by
the poet laureate or the court historian. Today events occur so that
they can be photographed.
One of the great charms of early news photographs is that one
can't tell which ones are posed and which ones are not. This picture
is clearly posed.* The personae have been rearranged to fit more
economically within the frame of the picture. Later on it becomes
more difficult to tell which pictures are arranged, or at what point in
history they are arranged. The sincerity of this picture, to me, is sim-
ply beyond challenge. The surprise and delight of the contestant and
the sympathetic joy of the TV host at the contestant's miraculously
correct answer to the unanswerable $104,500 question are not open to
doubt. Even after having been told that Mr. Van Doren's encyclope-
dic knowledge was assisted by a little judicious prompting, we do not
really disbelieve the evidence of the picture. I have been trying to
persuade you that the subjects of news photographs are precisely
what they appear to be, and that it is only the captions and the edi-
torial page that have made us believe otherwise.
The gulf that separates a photographer like Arthur Fellig, known
as Weegee, perhaps the greatest of all news photographers, from a
photographer like Eugene Atget, who was perhaps simply the best of
all photographers, is a gulf that separates a great natural talent from
a profound, original intelligence. Since Atget did not himself write
manifestos, it is assumed that he was a talented primitive who wan-
dered aimlessly through Paris, intuitively making wonderful pic-
tures which were beyond his own comprehension. The pictures them-
selves, some 3000 of which are now in the collection of the Museum of
Modern Art, do not support this view. They suggest, on the contrary,
a man who understood that photography could be a precise, critical
tool, a system with which an artist could define exactly what he
thought to be true.
The general and encompassing theme of Atget's work was his
own visual life. As an adopted Parisian who loved his city, his visual
life was inextricably intertwined with Paris and with his deep appre-
ciation of the fruits of traditional French culture. But he knew the
difference between an idea and a sentiment. He knew that while Paris
was his arena, his subject was precisely what he defined within the
7x9 inches of his little pictures.
'Editor's note: Photograph referred to is the Gloria Trumpeteers, photographer
unknown, Underwood and Underwood, May 8, 1930, in : John Szarkowski, From
the Picture Press. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973, p. 9.
84 John Szarkowski
Bill Dane, Berkeley, California, 27
April 1973. The Museum of Modern Art.
Atget often made more than one picture of the same subject.* He
returned again and again to the trees of St. Cloud and Versailles be-
cause he knew that an infinite number of beautiful pictures were po-
tential in them. And he knew also that none of these images was true
in the sense that it shared a privileged identity with the object photo-
graphed. He did not confuse the subject with the object; he under-
stood that the true subject is defined by the picture. If the tree is the
same, the subject is always different.
Atget was concerned with complexity and the relativity of form.
The breadth of his interests reminds us of the Encyclopedists of the
Enlightenment, but the quality of his sensibility seems prophetically
modern. The perspectives of his mind were Copernican rather than
Platonic; he worked not from, but toward a formal idea. His concep-
tion of form was not nuclear, but galactic, relative, plural, dynamic,
provisional, and potential.
Four or five years ago, a young California painter named Bill
Dane discovered photography and instantly set out to practice it with
enormous enthusiasm and generosity. The generosity expressed
itself in the form of a massive barrage of photographic postcards
which he sent without obligation and, I suspect, often without ac-
knowledgment, to what would seem to be an enormous mailing list.
This is not the manner in which artists have traditionally subsidized
their public; so it is perhaps not surprising that when a few critics did
begin to take cognizance of Dane's work, they tended to be more
interested in the fact of the postcards than in the pictures that they
carried. But the real reason that I like Dane's postcards is the fact
that they have, I think, beautiful pictures on them, pictures that de-
fine new subjects. It seems to me that the subject of Bill Dane's pic-
tures is the discovery of lyric beauty in Oakland, or the discovery of
surprise and delight in what we had been told was a wasteland of
boredom, the discovery of classical measure in the heart of God's own
junkyard, the discovery of a kind of optimism, still available at least
to the eye.
The trouble and the good part is that these new subjects are de-
fined in visual terms, and no matter how patiently we thumb through
our thesauruses, we will not quite reconstruct them with words. The
same thing is, of course, true of the news pictures and of those by
Atget; but in those cases, at a slightly greater historical remove, it is
easier to pay the pictures the compliment of affectionate and know-
ing gossip. Much of the content of these pictures is concerned, I think,
with a kind of visual play, and therefore with agility, surprise, bal-
ance, unexpected moves, and grace. The subjects of the pictures are
these virtues in themselves, and also the fact that these virtues can
flower in such unlikely circumstances. At first acquaintance, the pic-
tures might seem casual. I believe, on the contrary, that their very
point and purpose is order. Like much of the best photography being
done today, they concern photography's ability to know and rational-
ize reaches of our visual life that are so subtle, fugitive, and intuitive
that until now they have been undefinable and unshareable.
'Editor's note : For a complete discussion of a series of Atget's trees, which was out-
lined in more detail in the evening lecture, see: John Szarkowski, "Atget's Trees,"
One Hundred Years of Photographic History: Essays in Honor of Beaumont New-
hall, ed. Van Deren Coke. Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 1975, pp.
85 John Szarkowski
Excerpts from the day seminars
The basic thing I was trying to suggest last night is a very simple
idea, which is, fundamentally, that there are not two different ways
to say the same thing. You can say similar things in two different
ways, but you cannot say the same thing.
These two pictures are both by Dorothea Lange. She did the
prints; this is not a detail that I pulled out of her pictures or that any-
body else pulled out of her pictures. I never want you to think of these
two pictures as being the same subject. They're not. They are just the
same subj ect matter in some kind of very vague, amorphous way.
Subject matter is raw materials, not the subject. The picture on the
right is the full 4 x 5 or 3V4 x 4V4 graflex negative. A good many
years later, she decided that she should get in closer and make it
more important, and she did the picture on the left. Finally, near the
very end of her life, she decided that that was a mistake and went
back to the picture on the right. You shouldn't have to know that
whatever this building was built as, it was being used as a church. In
some sense, you should be able to feel it. The picture itself — what it
shows you, the way it describes it to you — should somehow manage
to be an equivalent for the sense.
It's always just a photograph. It's describing one's sense of what
was there; describing what was there is hopeless, it's impossible. If
you begin worrying about that, you're lost. There are a thousand dif-
ferent possibilities, none of which will describe what was there —
When choosing pictures for an exhibition, the photographer and
I will overlap eighty per cent on the first try. Fundamentally, it is a
matter of trying to trace the way that these individual pictures relate
somehow to a common concern and a longer line of how it is possible
to use this interesting and funny machine to clarify with some kind
of grace the nature of experience. That's the unstated question you're
always asking yourself; taste has nothing to do with it. With the other
twenty per cent we kind of split the difference, argue about them
sometimes until one person or the other is persuaded. When we were
doing Dorothea Lange's big retrospective, she was dying. I was not
looking forward to the prospect of fighting with her about which pic-
tures, but she made it instantly clear that we were going to fight
about it. By and large, most of the time we saw eighty per cent eye to
eye, but once in a while she would want to use a picture that seemed
to me to be boring. She wanted to use it because of all kinds of irrele-
vant attachments, and I would say, "No, Dorothea, don't ask me to
put that picture in the exhibition. It's not an interesting picture." She
would say something like, "Listen to me young man, you were in
knee pants and I was there, and that was a very important day. That
was the day that men first lined up to get their first social security
payments." She would give me a long speech about how important
it was, and I would say, "All right, you stand in front of that picture
during the twelve weeks of the exhibition and make that speech, blue
eyes flashing at everybody who walks through the museum. Then it
will be a good picture; otherwise, without the speech, it's not a good
picture." You have to really go to the pictures without having read
the backs of them first to find out what the difference is between the
picture and the caption. . . .
Most of the attempts to use photographs and words together are
failures because people try to say the same thing both ways. If you
try to do that, you are either relegating the photographs to the f unc-
86 John Szarkowski
Dorothea Lange, Grayson, San Joaquin
Valley, California, 1938 (cropped ver-
sion) . The Museum of Modern Art.
Dorothea Lange, Grayson, San Joaquin
Valley, California, 1938 The Museum
of Modern Art.
87 John Szarkowski
Walker Evans, Cotton Sharecropper,
Hale County, Alabama. 1936. The
Museum of Modern Art.
88 John Szarkowski
Walker Evans, Cotton Sharecropper,
Hale County, Alabama, 1936 (variant
negative) . The Museum of Modern Art.
89 John Szarkowski
tion of illustrations or you are relegating the words to the function of
captions. Either one of these things makes impossible the kind of real
collaborative, separate but equal, independent status that the pic-
tures and the text should both have.
The relationship between the pictures and the text is generally
brilliant in An American Exodus because Lange and Taylor don't try
to use the words and the pictures to mean the same thing. Dorothea
was a marvelous writer. She wrote very well, and very carefully. And
she did very good field notes. I suspect that she worked them over too,
after she got home. Paul Taylor was a proper, trained social scientist
and believed you wrote down all the facts right then, before you for-
got them. He was doubtless a very good influence on Dorothea in that
respect. . . .
A lot of you know this picture on the left from Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men or from other Walker Evans sources. Very few people
know that this man had a twin brother, a nicer fellow, not so intelli-
gent, but sweeter. I love to look at these two photographs as an ex-
ample of how fine you can slice it and what a difference it can make.
Which is the better picture? [Student response: "The one on the
left."! Sure it is. The next thing you would ask is "Why are the two
men different? Why are they different subjects?" You ask yourself
technical questions just like any other kind of art historian. You ask
"What's the difference?" and the difference is the flash fill. Evans
used a flashbulb for the one on the right, and you see into those eyes.
They don't become those opaque, really frighteningly anonymous lit-
tle black slits. The whole quality of the rendering of his face is soft-
ened by that flash filling in those shadows, smoothing the contours
of his face. Also with the flash you stop down a little bit, so the ren-
dering of the background is different; the boards behind are a little
sharper, the ears are sharper. You can go through and make a long
list of what physically are the differences between these two.
I don't mean to suggest that what these two pictures share is not
more important than their differences. What these two subjects have
in common is, of course, more important than the very subtle differ-
ences between them. My guess would be that if there had been some
kind of disaster on the negative on the left, it's perfectly possible, I
think probable, that Walker still would have liked the picture on the
right enough to use it. Photographers are always dealing, if they're
really good, with circumstances that are only barely and marginally
under control. If you're only going to make photographs that you can
absolutely and precisely predict, if you can really absolutely pre-
visualize it, why make it?
People who are not photographers do not realize how fast and ir-
retrievably things change, even in tiny subtle ways. What Ansel
Adams is dealing with is just as ephemeral as what Cartier-Bresson
was dealing with, or what Garry Winogrand is doing. And it doesn't
have to be the waves splashing on the surf; it can just be the quality
of the light
Of the kind of hard-core modern twenties artists who worked in
photography, I think Moholy, in many ways, has a lot more juice in
him now to be made use of than most of the others. There is some-
thing in Moholy which is very usable. It has to do with a terrific sense
of openness toward the machinery, toward the medium, and almost
a great pleasure in what the camera could do that he didn't com-
pletely understand. He welcomed it, he courted it— the wonderful
90 John Szarkowski
Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Spring, Berlin,
1928. The Museum of Modern Art.
kinds of little visual jokes, ambiguities, surprises that are in his pic-
tures that, on one level, he managed to make clear.
For ten years I thought that man was in the tree, and then for
about five years I thought that no, he was not in the tree, he was on
the ground. It turns out he is in the tree. The picture has got to do
with something that certainly Moholy was not totally and absolutely
in all of its aspects conscious of when he made it. It's an exploration;
it's enormously complicated, as most photographs are. There's an
awful lot going on. You try to keep all of the oranges in the air as best
you can, and once in a while it works. Then you've got a good one, and
that improves the sensitization of your reactions. There's a quality
of confrontation in Moholy's pictures, the presence of a problem that
hasn't absolutely been solved to death. A lot of photographs about
which one can say absolutely nothing bad are still j ust not interesting
pictures because there was never any risk. You feel that the photog-
rapher had the solutions, but he had no problem —
In terms of what they feel is of use to them, the good artists have
a very strong, not necessarily obj ective, sense of j ust exactly what has
been done and where the end of the diving board is, today, right now,
this morning. It's the hobbyist, then, who keeps coming in with bad,
third-rate imitations of things people did marvelously well in the
91 John Szarkowski
twenties, thinking that he has done something original. I think that
one of the things that characterizes the attitudes of people who seem
to me to be bright and open, sophisticated young photographers is
their much more catholic interest in the tradition. They are looking
at a much wider range of kinds of pictures and are much less con-
cerned with whether or not the picture, on the surface of it, is clearly
and unmistakably identifiable as art. . . .
Part of what I've been trying to talk about probably derives from
a long series of my own misunderstandings over the course of many
years of being interested in photography. I first saw this picture when
I was a little kid. It was titled, End of an Era, and there was no doubt
in my mind whatsoever about what the subject matter of that photo-
graph was — who that woman was in her chauffeur-driven elegant
automobile looking down at the pedestrian through that beautiful
round window, with the hand protecting her nose from any possible
offense from the street. I thought that was marvelous, the way that
photographer had pinned her to the specimen board like a moth. I
kept on thinking that was the subj ect of the photograph until thirty
or so years later, when I was working with Lange on her exhibition.
For the very first time in my life I found a full caption to the picture. It
was End of an Era, Funeral Cortege in a Small Valley Town, and my
philosophical sense of what the content of the picture was was ab-
solutely totally destroyed, instantly. The picture didn't change, and
my love of the picture and my pleasure in the picture didn't change;
Dorothea Lange, Funeral Cortege, End
of an Era in a Small Valley Town,
California, 1938. The Museum of
92 John Szarkowski
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Children
Playing in Ruins, Seville, 1933. The
Museum of Modern Art.
I didn't have to abandon the picture because it meant something dif-
ferent — it was now grief I was looking at instead of some other emo-
tion. It was an interesting lesson.
I have a whole string of those misconceptions. For years I thought
that all those Cartier-Bresson pictures of the children playing in the
ruins in Seville were from the Spanish War: children playing in the
midst of this cruelly bombed-out city. I was a photographer in those
days, not a curator, and I didn't have to look closely at the dates. But
those pictures were done four years before the war started. It finally
sank through my head that if I wanted to fasten some kind of larger
social, political, philosophical record to them, it would have to be
something other than the war or fascism or the United Front because
the pictures were four years premature. But they haven't changed
I don't think complete ignorance is possible; I don't even think it's
advisable. If we weren't willing and interested in trying, attempting
to deal with the pictures intellectually, there would be no point in
talking about them because that's fundamentally the only way we
can try to deal with them — in words, by talking about them. And I
don't in any way mean to suggest that these are purely abstract con-
structions that have their meaning enclosed completely within their
frame and do not reverberate outside in the rest of the whole world
of our knowledge and our sensibility. How boring that would be, how
terribly dry and limited. But it is important to make the distinction
between what is inside the picture and what is outside the picture.
Then we can allow the photograph to release and enliven our knowl-
edge or memory or sensibility so that we can make different kinds of
connections with what we already know and what we didn't know
until we looked at the picture, in terms of what is in the picture.
I think what a good picture does is demand your attention. That
doesn't mean every good picture is going to stop you on the street like
the Ancient Mariner. Sometimes you have to be a little more open to
it, and it takes a little more time for it to persuade you that it's a really
good picture; but once it persuades you, what it wins by that is your
attention. You try to bring as much of yourself to it as you can. In the
93 John Szarkowski
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother,
Nipomo, California, 1936. The Museum
of Modern Art.
Diana Thorne, Spanish Mother, The
Terror of 1938, lithograph, 1939. The
Museum of Modern Art.
94 John Szarkowski
course of a lifetime you might make up a hundred different stories
about the same picture, all of which are indefensible but each of
which is a kind of compliment.
One could do very interesting research about all of the ways that
the Migrant Mother has been used; all of the ways that it has been
doctored, painted over, made to look Spanish and Russian; and all
the things it has been used to prove. It's interesting because the pic-
ture is almost totally ambiguous. If one tried to define precisely what
that photograph documents, one could not locate it in any given dec-
ade, one could not with any confidence describe the condition of this
woman and her family as being desperately poor. Certainly one of
the terribly interesting things about pictures is that they do attract
to themselves wonderful rich bodies of speculation and superstition
and fairy tale that, for better or worse, are part of what we're going
to do to things that interest us.
95 John Szaekowski
Born in 1918, in Wichita, Kansas,
Smith's early interest in photographing
airplanes led to work for local news-
papers during his high school years. In
1936 he entered the University of Notre
Dame on a unique photography schol-
arship; he left for New York after one
semester. After a brief stay with
Newsweek Smith joined the staff of
Life in 1939. Discontented with his
assignments and with Life's shallow
treatment of its material, Smith
resigned in 1941. Interest in World War
II ended his freelance activity and after
some wartime experience on special
assignments for various publications
he rejoined Life's staff in 1944 as a war
correspondent in the Pacific. Badly
wounded in 1945 on Okinawa while
working on a story, he returned to New
York. "The Walk to Paradise Garden,"
a picture of his two children, marked
the end of two years of forced inactivity
during convalescence. A rich period
of work for Life followed, to be ended
by a dispute over the handling of "A
Man of Mercy," an article on Albert
Schweitzer. This dispute resulted in
Smith's resignation in 1954. He joined
Magnum Photos, and received two
Guggenheim Fellowships while work-
ing on an essay begun in 1955 on the
city of Pittsburgh. Various independent
projects, teaching positions, and prep-
aration of a book meant to encompass
his life's work entitled The Walk to
Paradise Garden occupied his time
during this period of general recogni-
tion. In 1961 he began working in
Japan. In 1963 he was appointed to the
President's Committee on Photography.
He was awarded a third Guggenheim
Fellowship in 1969. Smith married
again in 1971 and with his wife, Aileen,
began three and a half years of work
in Minamata, which was interrupted in
early 1972 when he was badly beaten
up while photographing. The book,
Minamata, appeared in 1975.
F <£*'• j* *
96 W. Eugene Smith
I started when I was fourteen. I wanted to be an aircraft designer. I
took up photography so that I could photograph the planes that were
coming through Wichita, Kansas, where I was born. Within about six
weeks I was publishing pictures in the local newspaper. And then I
became much more interested in photography than in the designing
of planes. In that way I was very lucky because I never had to design
a war plane, which made me feel rather good.
The first things that I photographed were mostly in two catego-
ries: one was sports; and the other was the dust bowl, dust storms,
and drought. I've always credited the photographing of sports as
giving me a head start in the matter of the reflex timing that is
needed in most photography. I still like to photograph sports, or I like
to photograph out of a train window or a car window, just to keep
my reflexes working at high tension. I learned to photograph this
way until quite a few pictures seemed to me j ust about as well com-
posed as any other pictures of mine. This development of a strong
sense of timing has been very helpful in almost any kind of partici-
patory photography that I have done. The other, the dust bowl
photography, as people called it, matured me very early in life. I
was really photographing the destruction of my own family as well
as the destruction of an entire area. I had the right in school to get up
and leave any class at any time and go out and photograph. All I had
to do was just excuse myself, but with the promised condition that I
kept my grades up. I would see a dust storm coming up and I would
say "excuse me." This was when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.
Then when I was seventeen the University of Notre Dame created
a photographic scholarship for me. I'm afraid I only lasted one
97 W. Eugene Smith
semester, leaving on Washington's birthday. I wouldn't have left
Notre Dame, probably, but for the fact that I flunked history. I mean,
according to the teacher. And since history was my strong subject,
I didn't quite understand how I had flunked it. I had gone in, looked
at the questions, sat down, and I wrote for three hours, I think. I got
it back and it said sixty-six. And I asked the teacher, "Is there some
mistake?" I just couldn't see how I could have gotten such a low
grade. I never got such a tongue-lashing in my life, daring to ques-
tion the teacher. So I walked right out of the history class. I was so
furious, and I wanted to leave anyway. I walked over to the Western
Union office and sent my mother a wire and told her I was going to
New York. When I got to New York, I got a letter from my roommate
saying, "Ha, ha. You were right and he was wrong. You had a ninety-
six." Such small things can change the course of a life. I went to work
for Newsweek and was fired for using a small camera— a 2Vi x 2% ,
not a 35. Well, they were very old fashioned at the time. They wanted
a Speed Graphic camera, not a small 2 x k x2 x A. They were afraid of
it, I think. They forbade me to use a small camera on an assignment,
any assignment. I like the big camera; I like the small camera. But, I
decided that the small camera was much better suited to the job. And
so I photographed with a small camera. Without even looking at the
pictures, they said, "What camera did you use?" And it was lucky,
too, that they fired me, because then I started working for Life.
There are many stories as to why Life folded. One was that they
were losing so much money. My personal opinion is that Life would
not have had to fold if they had edited differently. In other words,
I'm still carrying on the same battle with them that I've carried on all
through the years. In the early fifties I used to tell them, "I just don't
see how you can continue to live, unless you change your attitude of
editing and unless you can do more stories that have the depth and
the compelling power to gain your readers and really hold them."
And frankly, my stories were among the most successful that Life
ever used. I had to fight for all of them to get publication. If they had
just treated many other subjects with greater depth and greater feel-
ing — instead of, in the end, considerable superficiality — I think they
would have survived.
I have a letter from Life which said something about "your friends
here at Life have decided you either cannot or will not be saved."
When Life folded I was in Tokyo and was told about it on the plat-
form of a subway station. I felt very badly about it, but that sentence
crossed my mind because when I had said to Life, "I don't see how you
can continue to live," I never expected them to go out of business. It
was not really a question; I really believed they were unshakable.
As to my photography of human beings, compared to Life's usual
approach, it is a lot harder to do it my way. I j ust simply wanted to
give the time and the effort to take the superficiality out of a story.
After I did, Life often would bring back that superficiality.
They came up with many fresh ideas, but too often they treated a
fresh idea in the same old way. Too often, especially in the earlier
days, they would issue scripts including what photographs should be
made. These would be written by generally inexperienced individ-
uals in the main office, perhaps 1,500 or 2,000 miles away from the
individuals in the story. If a script said a farmer in South Dakota
went to his outhouse every morning at 3:00 am— even though he had
98 W. Eugene Smith
the most modern of toilets — the photographs very likely would show
him going to his neighbor's outhouse. I just, well, read the script and
threw it away. It was a hell of a way to run a magazine "of reality."
My attitude almost always was friendly towards Life; in spite of
their faults and failures they were a great magazine; otherwise it
would not have been worth the fight. The resignation over the
Schweitzer essay — it was a battle over the right of responsibility for
my reportage, I was bluntly saying they could not run a story of mine
and distort it, and I resigned trying to force them to work out the
problems about the story.
I would have gone back to work with Life at any time if they had
written into my contract a "right of responsibility" clause including
the right to prevent publication of any story that was being distorted
from my reportage; but Life became fearful that if they gave a right
like that to one person they would have to give it to all. Which might
have been a good idea, but it wasn't true, because very few of the
others were willing to work that hard or to fight like that over how
their pictures were used.
I really felt very alone at times, and still do. As I have said, there
were very few who were trying to do what I was trying to do — they
generally were not that troublesome, even though some did resign
for one reason or another. Most of the stories of my being tempera-
mental came from these battles — but as far as I am concerned, I am
responsible for everything that goes in, as far as having the respon-
sibility that it should not be distorted. In their setup I was not respon-
sible in the sense that it was "not my job" to handle words, but I
wanted those words to be quite great and I tried very hard to make
sure they were.
If I was going to be so temperamental as to turn down stories all
the time, I had to bring in something that was equivalent, that would
be at least as satisfactory. And this was the only way I could insure
that I would work on stories / wanted to work on. As to your question
about the "Nurse Midwife" — they more or less went right ahead and
said, "Fine, go up and talk to the science department." The science de-
partment and I got along very well. I had great respect for the peo-
ple there, and we worked together like intelligent people, without
any of the pettiness that went on in so many other departments. Well,
the reason I thought they were intelligent is that they mostly left me
alone. No, they were very good, marvelous at their job, too. I said,
"too," I shouldn't have said that. I was in on most of the layouts, espe-
cially toward the end of our togetherness. It isn't necessary, in my
mind, for me to do every layout. Actually, in those days at Life, they
could change my layout, as long as it did not insult my intelligence,
and as long as it did not distort the meaning of the story. I did not
throw temperamental tantrums about such things. I've never thrown
a temperamental tantrum in my life, anyway. As far as I'm con-
cerned, my temperament was backed into by having this happen and
that happen; that just made me determined that such a thing would
not happen the next time. So it was not that I was trying to throw
weight around. In fact, I think I'm very easy to get along with in such
matters, as long as there are intelligent and sincere people equally
trying to do a job. I don't really think there's much reason just to go
around being temperamental. I think it gets in the way of doing a job
well. So all the resignations, etc., were for purposes of trying to help
me gain the quality in the magazine I felt was my responsibility as a
99 W. Eugene Smith
W. Eugene Smith, Country Doctor, Life,
20 September 1948.
journalist. And I take that responsibility very seriously. Although we
laugh at some of the escapades, as you might call them, or scenes that
took place, they were all very serious and never light.
I don't think there is anything that has replaced Life. Certainly
television has not. And I think we are less well off than we were when
it was alive. I think it's too bad, because I think through television
we remain with the delusion that we are among the most informed
people in the world, and informed much faster; and I think we are
rapidly approaching a state of being very uninformed. This constant,
instant journalism— you don't get much journalism with it; you don't
get much depth. I'm utterly unsatisfied with news broadcasts. How-
ever, our pictures appeared very frequently in Japan, and they ap-
peared very often on prime time television; I cannot see that happen-
ing here very much. The Japanese use still photographs on their
television shows much more intelligently than we do. I've had several
half-hour and hour-long programs, or Aileen and I have, and this is
how we influence. The ways of seeing here and the use of still photo-
graphs are not very intelligent as yet. Television is doing the same
thing that Life did, as far as that goes, in most of their hour-long spe-
100 W. Eugene Smith
cials. I have to give them the same warning: if they don't do better,
it's just not going to work.
Well, I threatened resignation many times. I only had three
powers. One was to suggest; another was to protest; and the third
was to threaten resignation. And one has to be fairly confident in
oneself to threaten it, and it can never be a bluff. So actually I re-
signed for the first time in 1940. The reason was that the assignments
were just simply poor assignments, and I wanted to do something
much more serious. So I wrote a letter saying this to the photographic
editor and he wrote back saying he, too, once wanted to write "the
great American novel." So I resigned at that time. And he said I
would never have another chance to work for Life magazine. I mean,
they couldn't just let a young guy resign; they had to put a threat,
a twist, into it. So when the war came, and later when they wanted
me back, I made them ask me five times. No, seriously, it wasn't just
vengeance. It was the fact that I did not like the attitude that Life
used to have of trying to keep people scared and in this way, to get
more mileage out of them as a photographer or a writer. I felt that if
they really had to work to get me back, I would be in a much better
position to stand them off.
Wilson Hicks made some remark that I re-posed pictures in a way
that was more real than reality itself. Don't take any of the words in
Wilson's book about me as accurate. He also takes credit for my going
to the Spanish village, and he had already been off the staff. He's the
one that instituted the statement that if we could just break the
idealism of Smith, we could get more mileage out of him as a pho-
tographer. After our fairly early battles, and after he found out he
couldn't do all this pushing around, he and I got along fairly well. I
knew where he stood and he knew where I stood. The "Country Doc-
tor" was during this period of breaking the idealism out of Smith, and
I was beaten down in some ways. I was going to resign when I came
back. I didn't; things had changed. To do the "Country Doctor" I had
to sneak out of town because I was getting no assignment that was in
any way compatible with me at that moment, because they were
either refusing to give me any assignment that was workable, or I
was not working at all. Hicks and his assistants were on vacation.
The suggestion for the "Country Doctor" was not my suggestion, it
was Life's. But, I was determined, really, I was going to do this abso-
lutely my way or that was the end. We started doing it, and Hicks
started sending wires that I should come back. Finally, I sent a wire
back to each one of his which said: "Sorry, to leave now would jeop-
ardize the story." Incidentally, the "Country Doctor" story took
twenty-three days and twenty-three nights; and it also is the story
that did more than any other to break Life's habit of issuing scripts
for every story. Finally, Hicks stopped outside my door one day and
said, "I hear you've got a very good story in there." And I said, "Well,
it's not too bad." And then he said, "I doubt if you can guess who told
me." And I thought, "Well, why did he ask me a question like that?"
Hicks' attitude of playing people off against people, of playing one
man against another, of making someone work out of fear instead of
real cooperation, is why I resigned from Life to begin with — I mean,
one of the reasons that I had — because I could not work under those
kinds of conditions. I thought, "Well, who did he most want me to
start a feud with or something. Who is he playing off against me?"
I took a chance and said, "Leonard McCombe." I was right. And this
101 W. Eugene Smith
was because Leonard McCombe had just done his very famous
"Career Girl." I think Wilson got Leonard and me mixed upas to who
was setting up pictures. It never interfered with Leonard's and my
I almost never pose a picture. There was one time when I was
about nineteen or twenty that I did everything in a posed way with
many, many flashbulbs. I once decided that was the wrong way and
I tore them all up. Now I wish I hadn't. There is one thing that I will
do. Many people say that if you tamper with your subject at all or use
any additional lights that this is not honest. Well, I don't think that
light has anything to do with honesty. For instance, doing the "Mid-
wife" the rooms were frequently smaller than this table and much
shorter, and if I was trying to relate the midwife to the woman who
was giving birth, I had to somehow have pictures that showed both.
Sometimes I could use a window, but I would not hesitate at all to
go in a few days before the child was expected and, say, even move
the bed just far enough away from the wall so I could photograph
across the expectant mother and show the midwife. And also, since
most of the rooms were very dark, I very likely would carry a white
102 W. Eugene Smith
W. Eugene Smith, Nurse Midwife, Life,
3 December 1951.
card and possibly bounce strobe from it. Now this, some people say,
is interfering with your subject. But that in no way is interfering
with the natural fact and actual fact of the childbirth. So I never hesi-
tated to do it. There was a school of "available light photography"
that I think was rather a nonsensical school, in that they said that the
honesty of photography was dependent upon just using the light that
was available. I think if people are honest enough in the way they ap-
proach their subjects, they do not need some school of approach that
is a mechanical limitation. My attitude toward available light is: any
damned light is available light if I can get my hands on it when I need
it. And I have used a match, for instance, to get just the touch of light
into a face, or a hand flashlight. I almost never light the subject,
but I'm saying these are devices I will use if I think it is necessary.
Light is not necessarily honest; human beings may be.
I, unlike some photographers, when I'm photographing, will never
get so carried away — I may be crying and it's hard to photograph
through tears, in some situations, some of the pictures in Minamata
and other places — but I never lose track of what I am doing. I keep a
clear mind as to what I am doing. Many photographers, good ones,
Bourke-White and Wayne Miller, have both said that very often
when they are in a dramatic situation they get so carried away
taking photographs that they don't really realize anything else that
is going on or what they really have until they see their photographs.
This is a perfectly legitimate way to work. I sometimes wonder if
maybe I don't get carried far enough away. For instance, take the
picture of the mother and the child from the Minamata series. I had
built up to a very high tension. I turned to Aileen and I said, "Well,
okay, I have the photograph," and from that exposure on I got sloppy
in my focus and sloppy in my lighting. And so, actually what I was
doing was trying to keep enough tension going so that if anything
else developed, I would be prepared to come to full tension again. As
it was in that photograph, I usually know what is happening unless
I'm being fairly mediocre. And if I'm being fairly mediocre, then, of
course, there are ten mediocre photographs I can't choose from.
As we photographed other things, things around her, and even the
family, it grew and grew in my mind that to me the symbol of Mina-
mata was, finally, a picture of this woman and the child, Tomoko. One
day I simply said to Aileen that if everything is all right up there, and
they are not too busy, let us try and make that symbolic picture. Now
this does not in any way mean I was posing the picture in the sense of
posing a picture. It meant that I was interpreting what by now I knew
full well to be true, because I would never have done it otherwise. And
so we went there and we sat; and we talked for a while; and, I actually
explained what kind of a picture— I didn't explain that I wanted that
look, that look of courage— I simply said that I wanted something of
the caring for Tomoko. I thought maybe away from the bath would
be the picture that would best show what had happened to Tomoko's
body. We started. The mother herself suggested that the photograph
should be in the bath; so we decided to try that. The mother went
through her ordinary bath routine with the child, and this was the
I very often do this where I realize that that kind of a picture is
legitimate to an essay; I simply sharpen my perception watching for
that event to happen. And I wouldn't hesitate, say, to set a legitimate
situation into motion if I thoroughly felt that the picture was legiti-
103 W. Eugene Smith
W. Eugene Smith, Tomoka and Mother,
104 W. Eugene Smith
mate to the subject. I almost never do this, but I wouldn't hesitate to
do it if there were an important gap in the coverage of the event. I
much prefer to wait for the event to happen in natural life than to
speed it up.
Except when covering the war, I find that my approaches are not
very different. I generally try to become so accepted into a commu-
nity, that they more or less forget about me as a photographer and as
a journalist, and I will be welcomed in homes and not as a stranger
intruding. Part of this is also that I'm so very shy that I do not feel I
can j ust go out and slam cameras in people's faces and photograph
them. I never could do some of the things that some of the people,
who I think are very fine photographers, do. I'm not saying I'm right
and they're wrong. I'm just saying that it's just not my way of work-
ing. So the "Midwife" and Minamata were, in a sense, approached
in the same way; although Minamata did have much more of the con-
frontations between patients and company, and one of its results was
their smashing my head and my camera. When we speak of that
situation, it only took thirty seconds of my life, as far as the action
that caused it to happen. And though I'm still suffering from it, I
would like to balance that action with the good things and the
warmth with which most of the Japanese people have treated me.
The Japanese acceptance of me has j ust been remarkable.
When you go to a city or village like Minamata, the great, the
most grievous problem as far as I am concerned is how to reach the
patients. How do you get them to accept you so that you can photo-
graph? The question of photographing them is a question of intru-
sion; it is a question of depth; it is a question of learning your subject
well enough to know how to photograph. I thoroughly believe that in
all photography this is most important. I don't believe one should in-
trude when the intrusion is obnoxious, or dangerous, or it just truly is
within the rights of the subject to object. I have complete sympathy
for anyone who does object. Becoming closely enough acquainted
with the subjects is a question that no one can tell you how to solve,
but it is a question of how to be intimate enough so that they forget
that you are a photographer to the extent that they will not be self-
conscious when you are around. And in Minamata it reached that
point in three or four months with most of the neighbors, most of the
people, accepting me.
I truly at all times try to have consideration for the people I'm
photographing. I try to become as intimate with the subjects as pos-
sible. For instance, with the "Midwife," I felt it didn't matter whether
I took one camera or five because the shock of their seeing a white
man with any kind of a camera coming across toward their shack
was traumatic. Yet because they had such a reverence or love for the
midwife, all she would have to do to get them at their ease would be
to say, "This is Mr. Smith. He's a friend of mine. We are working
together." That usually just ended all embarrassment; it ended all
hesitation, although there were always certain kinds of shyness and
there always will be. There are many ways lives can be changed by
photographs, but I don't think just the mere act of making a photo-
graph will cause it to change.
In the death scene in the "Spanish Village," I did not want to in-
trude into the mourning scene. But as the picture came about, the day
before I had been quite ill with an upset stomach in the field just on
the edge of the village. A man offered me some wine, which I didn't
105 W. Eugene Smith
want, but I drank it anyway just because of the gesture of kindness.
Then the next day he came to me and said his father had died that
night. He had had gangrene and they wanted to bury him as quickly
as possible, so he asked me if I could take him to the county seat so he
could get the necessary papers registered. When we came back, he
went to his house. I could see into the house; it was a very moving
scene that was happening in the back of the room, but I could not
bring myself to go in, to just walk in; I just couldn't do it. I paced back
and forth outside, storming at myself because I realized that it was
an important picture, and it was important to the whole story. But
yet I did not feel I had the right to intrude. And I knew that a great
many photographers would have just gone in. Whether they would
have come out with a good picture, I don't know, because they prob-
ably would have disturbed the people in there. Well, I stayed outside
for a while. Then I saw the son of the man come to the door, and I sud-
denly went up to him and said, "Sir, I do not wish to dishonor your
father, but would it be permissable for me to enter your house and to
photograph?" And he said, "Please come in. I would be honored." So I
went in with one assistant. The only light in there was a candle about
three feet over his head, and with all that black that they were wear-
ing, it was very difficult. But I wanted to hold that same mood of light-
ing, so it was one of the few times I used a flashbulb. I took the reflec-
tor off and j ust used the bare bulb. By hand signals alone I motioned
my assistant to work his way around behind the people to a position
where he could hold the bulb over the candle so that it would simulate
the candle lighting. I made one exposure and immediately realized
that it was not good, that the picture was all out of rhythm. I made
one more and I thought I had at least a good picture. I would have
loved to have stayed there and photographed for a couple of rolls, but
then I saw the son standing in the doorway peering in. I again mo-
tioned without words for my assistant to go through the other door-
way so that mourners in the other room and the son in the doorway
could be seen, made one more exposure, and then very reluctantly I
left. All this time never having said a word, hoping I never created
much of a disturbance. So I think a great many of these very delicate
W. Eugene Smith, Spanish Village,
Life, 9 April 1951.
106 W. Eugene Smith
situations can be overcome with care and sensitivity and politeness.
I have known other instances where I absolutely have refused to
photograph, though, because I think there is no photograph that is
worth any real embarrassment to the people involved.
Actually, I think my whole career has followed this involvement
with individuals and situations that are very much part of what I am
today. My aims have been pretty much the same. There have been
curves and jags, but it's still an unbroken line from where I began to
where I am now. I think for a long while I was getting better. In the
early fifties, I think I was going so rapidly from each story I was at-
tempting that it could have been remarkable to keep up that growth.
Then came a very bad period in my life, but I was still growing for sev-
eral years within it. I think I was at my peak as a photographer in,
say, 1958, or so. I do not think that I am as good a photographer today
as I was then. My imagination and my seeing were wildly free and
disciplined. Everywhere I looked, every time I thought, it seemed to
me it left me with greater exuberance and a truer quality for seeing.
Yet, it was one of the most miserable times of my life for I had little
opportunity to put it into real use. I only had small opportunities to
do it, but I can still feel it happening. Actually, I also wrote more in
that time. I think my writing was better then, too, than it is now — I
wrote two plays. I could not write them today.
I'm a great believer in life. Oh, my sense of despair is one of sor-
rows and deep feelings, but it is not one of giving up on either the
world or other people. The world or other people, now what does that
mean? I sometimes give up in despair on my English, but not on peo-
ple. No, I think I'm one of the most affirmative photographers. There's
nothing in this essay [Minamatal that can be taken as being other
than affirmative, no matter how cynical I am at times and no matter
how critical I am at other times. The basic feeling is affirmation; it is
not despair. And I really mean that.
I've been very lucky. I started when I was fourteen and in terms
of acceptance, I've been a success almost the entire time. In fact, I've
had to keep tight control to make sure that my self-criticism never
got dulled by good notices or I could easily have slipped into real
complacency. I compete only against myself — what do you think that
was a minute ago when I said I was a better photographer in 1958?
Was the criticism plain? I think Minamata should have been better.
I've never been satisfied with the work I've done. My work is a failure
as far as the height I'd like to reach with it. You see, I started out on
the premise that there's no such thing as a perfectionist. Because
knowing perfection is impossible, the perfectionist never begins. So
knowing that I'm going to fail to a certain extent, my problem is to
cut that failure down to as narrow a gap as possible.
By far the best way to see Minamata is by means of the book that
is just coming out, because I think we have tried to blend words and
pictures together in a way that they really don't repeat each other.
Each adds to the other medium in a true marriage. A few of the cap-
tions do slightly repeat, but all in all, I don't think they do. Now I
have not laid it out as a photographer trying to look good as a photog-
rapher as such. I mean, in other words, this is an essay which I hope
becomes an experience for those who read it. I'm not trying to say:
"Oh, see what a great photographer I am," or something like that.
Sometimes I have used pictures, pictures that I simply had not been
able to bring to the very highest of photographic standards, but that
107 W. Eugene Smith
I found to be essential for the book. Ideally every photograph would
fill both the artistic function and the necessity of journalism.
I put so much passion and so much energy into the doing of my
photographs that beyond photography for art's sake, "art for art's
sake," or such, I much prefer to have my photographs add this other
element, that possibly they will stir someone to action, to do some-
thing about something. I would like to make clear at the very begin-
ning that I have no conflict between journalism and my artist self. At
one time I did, but then I realized that to be a good journalist I needed
to be the finest artist that I could possibly be. When I was working for
Colliers, I really rather enjoyed reading a manuscript and then illus-
trating the manuscript in some way, some very free-form way that
allowed me not to illustrate one little passage or something, but
allowed me to illustrate the feeling of the subject. I think it's gen-
erally easier to do the words after the pictures, because in a way you
have more flexibility with words than you do with a photograph.
I learned much more from music, literature, the stage, the other
arts, than I ever learned from painting or from photography. I don't
know why that should be. I picked up timing and a sense of drama,
and also how to relate pictures together. But more important than
that, I was also emotionally very deeply stirred; my mind was set to
thinking; I was just involved. My music was of the widest possible
variety. So was my outlook on life as far as what it embraces. I have
about twenty-five thousand records and ten thousand books. I've
lived a little bit of life, too. Drama plays a great role in my photog-
raphy. You very seldom will find among my photographs someone
who is standing there, j ust staring at me. I like very much to have my
portraits in relationships, so that the person you are looking at is
well related to a background of some of the things that he has. And I
try to integrate these very strongly into the final photograph.
I was a terrible printer; in fact, some people think I still am. My
printing style mainly evolved from an effort to defeat printers. I
would work very hard so that anything that was essential to the pic-
ture would be very open and easy to see, and shadowed details would
be open. So it would have a chance, even if it didn't come out as good
printing, it would at least bear a resemblance to the balances that I
was working toward.
I think that color — in the form that it is in now, and in the lack of
control that I would have over it — has a great tendency to vulgarize
the kinds of emotions that I'm trying to express. Now, color should
not vulgarize emotions because it should be a marvelous tool for
underlining them and intensifying them, but I just cannot stand most
of the color I see, especially in reproduction.
The photographer who influenced me possibly the most when I
was very young was a man by the name of Martin Munkacsi. I don't
know of anyone who has, as a photographer, influenced me most, but
it was his sense of humanity and dynamics that most impressed me,
his almost poster-like quality whether he was photographing the
Nazis goose stepping or the unguarded moments of high officials. But
I can't say too many photographers have influenced me. There are
those I admire, and I absorb from all sources, obviously. Now Robert
Frank, I have to relate him to Franz Kafka. I just feel an unatoned
thinking within Bob that I do relate to, and I like his pictures for that
reason. He's going to make them anyway, so whatever I think about
his sensitivity is not going to injure anyone. I feel worried about
108 W. Eugene Smith
Diane Arbus' pictures, what they have done to the subject, but I also
admire her as a photographer. Although with Diane Arbus I've often
wondered if, quite independently of each other, we had both acci-
dentally run across the same people and had photographed them —
not being influenced by knowing that the other person was influenc-
ing us — I really would have loved to have seen the difference the
photographs would show. Some of her people I think I would perhaps
have chosen as subjects, too, but I think they would have come out
vastly different. Now, I don't think either one of us would necessarily
be right, but I think we would have shown vastly different interpre-
tations of the same people. And I think a lot of her freaks would not
look so freaky, and in fact, I think they would look quite normal.
As far as I am concerned, I j ust very quietly accept photography
as an art. Some of the photographs I've taken have changed others'
lives, too, because I know from the history of my own work that at
times through photographs I have been able to destroy a concentra-
tion camp; I have been able to build a clinic for a nurse midwife; I
have in some measure been able to help a little fighting the disease
and pollution of racism. I never knew quite the answer when indi-
viduals asked me my reason for becoming involved in pollution.
And then I suddenly realized that in my entire life I have seldom
been seriously photographically involved with anything else. I grew
into a quick maturity seeing my own family go down to destruction
because of man's pollution of the soil by over-farming, tearing down
the windbreaks until he saw his farmland, aided by the drought, go
across the skies.
I don't feel all that dedicated. I just feel like the normal guy. Too
many people insist upon my being a legend, but I feel humble and
always on the threshold of knowing how to do my work — and I love to
sit and listen to music, and drink scotch.
109 W. Eugene Smith
Susan Sontag was born in 1933 in New
York City. "The Benefactor," her first
novel, was published in 1963. In 1965,
Against Interpretation, a collection of
her critical writings, was nominated for
a National Book Award in the field of
Arts and Letters. Death Kit, her second
novel, appeared in 1967. In 1969, Farrar,
Straus and Giroux published Styles of
Radical Will, eight long essays on con-
temporary art and thought, and Trip
to Hanoi, a Noonday paperback.
Sontag has written and directed three
films: Duet for Cannibals (1969) and
BrotherCarl (1971) in Sweden and
Promised Lands (1974) in Israel. Far-
rar, Straus and Giroux has published
screenplays of the first two films: Duet
for Cannibals in 1970 and Brother Carl
in 1974. Her stories have appeared in
American Review, Partisan Review,
Harper's, The Atlantic, Playboy and
Harper's Bazaar. Her essays and re-
views have been printed in numerous
magazines, including The New York
Review of Books, The New Yorker,
Partisan Review, Salmagundi, Tri-
Quarterly, Evergreen Review, Com-
mentary, Sight & Sound, The Nation,
Vogue, Film Quarterly, Ramparts and
The New York Times. In 1977, Farrar,
Straus and Giroux will publish On
Photography, a series of six essays that
originally appeared in The New York
Review of Books, and a volume edited,
with introductory essay and notes, by
Sontag, called Antonin Artaud: Se-
lected Writings. She is presently work-
ing on a third novel.
110 Susan Sontag
I am a writer and a filmmaker. I don't consider myself a critic, and I
am above all not a critic of photography. But it's from that strictly in-
dependent and freelance position that I am saying my say; it's not as
a member of the photography establishment or photography anti-
establishment, but as an educated outsider.
It has occurred to me, however, that because of my special status
in relation to the other people whom you have invited to talk before
me that I might be in a better position than some of them to com-
ment on the subject of this series. Obviously, to say "Photography
within the Humanities" is to name two things which raise a whole,
series of problems. The question is: What is photography? Then
there is the other big word with the little ones in between — Humani-
ties, which makes us think of a very particular set of values that
refers back to certain cultural and educational ideas, so that Hu-
manities is a term that comes up in, above all, university curricula.
But that is a kind of condensation or synthesis or anthology of the
most valuable cultural experiences and ideas and works of the imagi-
nation or creation within, I say, a given culture. But just to catch up
with it in its relatively modern form, it does have to do with a notion
Now if anyone would think to suggest as a title for a series of ex-
periences or lectures or discussions, Photography within the Human-
ities, he's probably not mainly thinking of the humanities as being
the subject under question but photography, because one of the first
things to say about photography is that it is a relatively recent activ-
ity. Whether you consider it an art form or not, it is an activity over
which people have debated (and) whose status has been under ques-
tion. A lot of people in the early decades of photography tried to treat
it as if it were simply some kind of copying machine, as an aid in re-
producing or dispensing a certain kind of visual information, but not
itself as an independent source of seeing or of material that would
fundamentally change our visual sensibility, as, in fact, it has. And
the history of taste and argument about photography has roughly
consisted, to speak in broad terms, of the continuous upgrading of
One continues to have a great many debates, needless to say: "Is
photography an art or isn't it?" This very nourishing, if phony, de-
bate has been going on for a century about whether photography is
an art or not. I say it's phony not because there are not some real
questions, but because I think that the questions— at that level— are
oversimplified and fundamentally opaque. But it has been, if it is a
form of mystification, an immensely creative mystification. The lit-
erature about photography by professional photographers is incred-
ibly defensive. It is both aggressive and defensive, two stances that
usually go together. One can sense, under all these exalted claims
that are being made for photography, a very interesting and fruitful
pressure on the photographer which has been this problematic status
of the very activity itself.
By asking about the situation of photography within the human-
ities, one is covertly raising that old query: Is photography an art? —
is it really a serious activity or a serious art; does it really have a
proper place in the university curriculum , as a department in muse-
ums; is it different from the other art forms? In another sense, it is as
A speech delivered at a Wellesley College photographic symposium on April 21,
1975. Published by permission of Susan Sontag. Copyright© 1976 by Susan Sontag.
Ill Susan Sontag
I suggested before, a phony debate, because there is no doubt the bat-
tle has been won.
The question is rather, if photography is an art and is socially or
sociologically accepted, is it an art like any other? It isn't exactly an
art, like painting, and perhaps that may explain something about
its current influence. In some way I would suggest that photography
is not so much an art as a meta-art. It's an art which devours other
art. It is a creation, a creation in the form of some certain kind of
visual image, but it also cannibalizes and very concretely reproduces
other forms of art; there is a creation of images, images which would
not exist if we did not have the camera. But there is also a sense in
which photography takes the whole world as its subject, cannibalizes
all art forms, and converts them into images. And in that sense it
seems a peculiarly modern art. It may be the art that is most appro-
priate to the fundamental terms and concerns of an industrial con-
sumer society. It has the capacity to turn every experience, every
event, every reality into a commodity or an object or image. One of
the fundamental axes of modern thought is this contrast between
image and reality. It doesn't seem wrong to say that our society is
rooted or centered in a certain proliferation of images in a way that
no other society has been.
To return to the point of departure, if photography has a place
within the humanities, it might very well have a kind of central place,
because it is not only a form of art under certain restrictions, but it
also has a place where all kinds of sociological and moral and histor-
ical questions can be raised.
My purpose is not to evaluate the work of particular photogra-
phers, but rather to discuss the problems raised by the presence of
photography, and these include moral issues as well as aesthetic
issues. I think it's a perfectly good idea to study photography. I'm not
talking about studying making photographs, but studying looking at
them, and learning how to see, because the way in which you learn to
see is a general education of sight, and its results can be extended to
other ways of seeing. Another point should be made that there is such
a thing as photographic seeing. If you think of people actually going
out and looking for photographs as a kind of freelance artistic activ-
ity, what people have more and more learned to value is something
they get in the camera that they don't get ordinarily, that they can
see by means of the camera, and so they are changing their own way
of seeing, in the very process of becoming habitual camera users. The
world becomes a series of events that you transform into pictures,
and those events have reality, so far as you have the pictures of them.
Most people in this society have the idea that to take a picture
is to say, among other things: "this is worth photographing." And to
appraise an event as valuable or interesting or beautiful is to wish to
have a photograph of it. It has gotten built into our very way of per-
ceiving things, that we have a fundamentally appropriative relation-
ship to reality. We think that the properly flattering contact with any-
thing is to want to photograph it. And the camera has indeed become
part of our sensibility. So when Christopher Isherwood said, "I am
a Camera," what he really meant was "I see. I see. I perceive. I am
storing this up."
One of the reasons I don't take pictures is that there are a lot of
other people taking them and that's for the moment enough for me;
and I feel I already do see photographically. Perhaps I see too much
112 Susan Sontag
photographically and don't wish to indulge this way of seeing any
further. It is a very particular specialization of one's sensibility.
How did you first become involved with photography from the criti-
cal point of view?
I've always been a photograph junkie. That is, I've always been very
interested in photographs— I cut them out of magazines and collect,
not originals, but copies, reproductions of photographs. The only dif-
ference is that recently I decided to write about some of the ideas that
I've had over the last twenty years. So I embarked on what I thought
would be one essay and has turned out to be six. But I'm not, as I told
the people who invited me to Wellesley, a photographer; I do not take
photographs; I don't like to take photographs; I don't own a camera;
and I'm not a photography critic. But my writing about photography
represents the expression, and in a certain sense, the liquidation
of a very long-term interest. It's precisely because I've been think-
ing about this for twenty years that I think I can write about it now.
Somebody asked me what I thought I was going to do by writing these
essays, and I said I'm going to cure myself of my addiction. That
hasn't happened, however.
In your opinion, is the normal everyday photographer any more ag-
gressive, cannibalistic toward the world around him or her than a
normal, everyday prose writer?
There are an unlimited number of photographs to take, every photog-
rapher feels that. There are not an unlimited number of things to
write, except in a very cerebral sense, which no writer really feels.
Every writer has to reach and is constantly aware of how basically it
comes from inside; it all has to be transformed in the homemade lab-
oratory that you have got in your guts and your brain. Whereas, for
the photographer, the world is really there; it is an incredible thing,
it is all interesting and in fact, more interesting when seen through
the camera than when seen with the naked eye or with real sight. The
camera is this thing which can capture the world for you. It is not like
a gun; it is not like doing people in, but it is a way of bringing some-
thing back. It enables you to transform the world, to miniaturize it.
And photographs have a special status for us as icons and as magical
objects that other visual images such as paintings and other forms of
representational art such as literature do not have. I do not think
that any other way of creating image systems has the same kind of
obsessional power behind it.
Of course, the word "cannibalize" is loaded and provocative and
is perhaps overly strong, but I do not consider it to be a key part of my
argument. My primary point is not to speculate about what picture
taking does to people, but to consider the impact of looking at photo-
graphs and having this kind of information or experience of the pic-
ture. It is the consumption of photographs rather than the taking of
them which concerns me and why pictures have become a regular
nutriment of our sensibility and a source of information.
I think there are moral issues that are worth talking about, and
one shouldn't be afraid of them. I get kind of sad when I realize that
what people seem to want is to be told whether photography is okay
or not. I mean it's part of the world. Let me give you an example. I'm
probably being very indiscreet, but I don't think he would mind— I
had a call the other day from Richard Avedon, whom I had gotten to
113 Susan Sontag
Ir £7 ggn
Brassai, Rome-Naples Express, 1955.
Clarence John Laughlin, Sharley Brow
in the Outhouse, 1955, Wellesley Col-
Brassai, L' Amateur du livre au long
des quais de la Seine, 1931.
Berenice Abbott, Multiple Exposure of
a Swinging Ball in an Elliptical Orbit,
Che Guevara Dead, Vallegrande,
Bolivia, 10 October 1967. Colonel Rene
Adriazola of the Bolivian Air Force
touches chest of body Bolivian authori-
ties said is that of Argentine-born
Cuban guerilla Ernesto Che Guevera,
one-time top aide to Fidel Castro, UPI,
Wellesley College Museum.
114 Susan Sontag
115 Susan Sontag
know as a result of these essays for the New York Review of Books.
In fact, I didn't know him before. I don't think I would have written
about photography if I had known any photographers. Anyway, we
had become friends and we had a lot of discussion about the ideas of
the essays, some of which he agreed with and some of which he
didn't. He said, "I want to know your opinion." He had spent seven
weeks in Saigon in the early seventies and he took a great many
photographs of the napalm victims, victims of American bombings
of the Vietnamese. He did this on his own, with his own money. He
was not sent by anybody. He set up a studio in a hotel in Saigon and
among other things he photographed dozens and dozens of people
without faces, without hands, bodies covered with scar tissue. He was
asked by a major and very commercial magazine a couple of days
ago to print these photographs. He's never printed them. He's never
published them. He called me up and said, "What do you think? I
don't know what to do. It seems to me a terrible thing to do, and it
also seems to me a good thing to do. I mean, I just don't know." We
talked for an hour about it. Was it an exploitation of these people?
Are these photographs aesthetic? He had only shown me one, and I
haven't seen all of them. He said the photographs were beautiful. In
some ways, they're beautiful and in others they are absolutely hor-
rifying. He said, "I don't know what to do," and I said, "I don't know
what you should do either; after calling me up to ask my opinion I
think I'm just as puzzled as you are. I can think of very good argu-
ments for not doing it, and I can think of very good arguments for
This is a tremendous, messy, moral problem. It doesn't start with
that phone call either; it starts all the way back when one does it. If
you don't publish them, you'll have some regrets; if you do publish
them, you'll have some regrets. He agreed. I haven't heard the news,
so I do feel a little indiscreet about telling you the story, but it's not a
real secret and you may very well see these photographs in the next
few weeks. But the problems are real. The complexity is real. He's
very objective about his work, and he's very smart. He said they
looked like Avedon pictures, and yet they are of those people. He said
he was crying when he took the photographs, and yet they looked
like Avedon photographs, very straight-on, white background. He
said, now I don't know what to do with them. I wonder if I should have
taken them, and yet I know if I had to do it all over again I would
still have taken them. It's very interesting; it put his whole activity
into question. I do think that people understand this. I don't think I
invented these problems, and I think that a lot of photographers are
aware of them. These are the real moral and aesthetic questions that
are raised by this enterprise.
Do you wish that photography wasn't as ubiquitous as it is? Do you
resent that kind of intrusion into your consciousness that you de-
scribed as happening at age twelve when you first saw photographs
Well, it changed my life. But I don't know that I would say I resent it.
A lot of people have seen photographs that have, whether they know
it or not, changed their consciousness. It's not a question of my re-
action personally; it's a question of naming it— naming this phenom-
enon which is very formative for us . . . this shock experience .... It's
1. Susan Sontag, "On Photography," New York Review of Books, October 18, 1973.
116 Susan Sontag
not that I want to say that you can't be shocked by anything but a
photograph, but here is this object, this image, which you can stum-
ble or come upon inadvertently by opening the pages of a magazine.
It's not like a painting; you know where the paintings are— they're in
museums and galleries and if you want to go that's a special experi-
ence; you go to it, so to speak. But photographs come to you because
they're all over the place.
The nature of the imagery, in which the imagery is very shocking
and painful, is certainly more common now, steadily more common
than it was. There was a photograph, you must have seen it, it was on
the cover of both Newsweek and Time magazines a few weeks ago, of
a Vietnamese mother holding a child that was wounded probably, or
dying, or was already dead in her arms, facing the camera. Now this
is a photograph which you would not have seen on the cover of any
news magazine several years ago. I am not saying that people were
not shocked by the photograph; I am sure some people cancelled their
subscriptions to those magazines. But that kind of image would not
have been acceptable, would have been thought too shocking by the
editors of those magazines a few years ago. I think there is a process
of becoming inured. I do not know if people become that much more
tolerant of the real thing because the imagery becomes that much
more acceptable, but inevitably there is a process of dissociation. So
that often when people for the first time are confronted in reality
with anything like the level of cruelty in the images they have seen,
what they think is, "It's like the photograph" or "It's like the movie."
They refer back to the images in order to have a direct experience of
the reality because they have been prepared, in some very dissociated
way, by the images and not by real experience. If you see a lot of im-
ages like that, the ante is being raised; the image has to be even more
shocking to be really upsetting.
In a way you are not present, you are passive when you look at the
photograph. Perhaps that is the disturbing thing. If you are standing
watching an operation, next to the operating table, you can change
your focus, you can still look different ways, you can change your at-
tention—make the close-ups and the long shots for yourself. There
are also the surgeons and the nurses, but you are there. You are not
there in a picture, and that is where some of the anxiety comes in;
there is nothing you can do when you look at a photograph.
Photographs give us information; it seems that they give us infor-
mation that is very packaged and they give us the information that
we are already prepared to recognize obviously. It's as if the words
don't have the weight they should have, so that one of the statements
being made by any photograph is: "This really exists." The photo-
graph is a kind of job for the imagination to do something that we
should have been able to do if we were not so disturbed by so many
different kinds of information that are not really absorbed. Photo-
graphs have this authority of being testimony, but almost as if you
have some direct contact with the thing, or as if the photograph is a
piece of the thing; even though it's an image, it really is the thing.
Do you feel that photography has promoted a new kind of seeing?
Oscar Wilde said that the way you see is largely determined by art,
in the larger sense. Though people have always seen, now there is a
process of framing or selection which is guided by the kinds of things
that we see reproduced. Photography is an art form which is basi-
117 Susan Sontag
Edward Weston, MGM Studios, 1939.
Walker Evans, Penny Picture Display,
Savannah, Georgia, 1936.
Richard Avedon, Jean Genet, Writer,
118 Susan Sontag
Lewis Hine, Mental Institution, New
Duane Michals, Portrait of Magritte,
119 Susan Sontag
cally and fundamentally connected with technology and a technol-
ogy whose virtues are its simplicity and its rapidity.
Cartier-Bresson has recently said that he wants to stop photo-
graphing. He has always painted a little bit, but now he wants to de-
vote himself completely to painting, and the reason he gave is that
photography promotes "fast seeing," and, having spent a lifetime
seeing fast, he now wants to slow down. So he'd rather paint. The ex-
istence of the camera does promote habits of seeing which are rapid,
and part of their value is how much you can get out of this rapid
Technologically, the whole history of the development of cameras
has been to shorten the exposure time. Beginning a few decades ago,
you got virtually instantaneous development. That means there is an
increasing enlargement of the scope of the photographic project.
Thus, anything can be caught by the camera, and the whole world is
material to be photographed. There's no doubt that the reigning taste
is for the photograph that makes the thing interesting. It isn't inter-
esting in itself, it's interesting because it's in a photograph. One of
the many tendencies is to reduce the subject matter or have a kind
of throw-away subject matter in photography. There's nothing that
wouldn't make a good picture. I don't think that presumption exists
in the history of the other arts or — if it does — it is only recently, and
partly because photography has become a model for our conscious-
ness. When you have seen something extraordinary it goes with the
telling afterwards that you want to have the photographic record of
it; the notion of an event or situation or person being privileged and
your taking a camera to record it are intertwined for us.
I was in China a year and a half ago and wherever I went, the
Chinese said to me, "Where is your camera?" I was apparently the
first person to ever come to China in the past few years (since for-
eigners have started going again) who hadn't gone with a camera.
They understood, of course, that to get to go to China was a big thing
for us foreigners and that what those foreigners did when they came
to an event that was particularly interesting was to take a picture of
it. I was very interested to see what people do with cameras in China,
because it is the one country in the world where there is a conscious
effort on the part of the Chinese leadership not to be a consumer
society. Wherever I went in China, everybody had photographs of
relatives: in wallets, on the glass under desks in offices, on the side of
the lathe or the machine in factories. And they'd say, "That's my aunt
so-and-so, or my cousin so-and-so; he lives a thousand miles away,
and I haven't seen him in two years; those are my children, those are
my parents." Or you'd see, less often, photographs of famous holy
places or important monuments. Those are the only photographs you
see. When a foreigner comes to China and takes a picture of an ap-
pealing door, the Chinese say, "What would you want to take a pic-
ture of that for?" And the person says, "Well, it's beautiful." "That
door is beautiful? It needs a coat of paint." And you say, "No, it's
beautiful." The Chinese do not have that idea that objects can dis-
close some kind of aesthetic value simply when they are reproduced,
or that particularly casual, vernacular, off-hand, deteriorated,
throw-away objects have a kind of poetry that a camera can reveal.
The point that I make in a number of the essays is that there is a
kind of surrealist sensibility in photography which is very impor-
120 Susan Sontag
tant, i.e., the casual ordinary thing is able to reveal its beauties when
photographed. There is a whole tradition in photography, and I do
not mean necessarily the so-called surrealist photographers, but pre-
cisely the people who are doing very straight-on stuff, like Weston
photographing toilets and artichokes. One of the great traditions in
photography is taking the neglected, homely object, the corner of
something, the interesting surface, preferably a bit deteriorated or
decayed with some kind of strange pattern on it. That is a way of
seeing which is very much promoted by photography and has in-
fluenced people's way of seeing — whether they use cameras or not.
Is there a difference in impact between still photographs and film?
The photographs change, depending on the context in which they are
seen. One could say there is something exploitative; they become
items, visual commodities to be flipped through as you move on to
something else. It is perhaps a way of denigrating the subject. For
example, I have seen those Minamata photographs, that are down-
stairs, many times. I have seen them in books and all kinds of mag-
azines, and now I am seeing them in a college art museum; each time
they have looked different to me. And they are different. Photographs
are these portable objects which are changed by their context. You
could say, of course, that that is also true of films. To some extent,
under what circumstances you see a film does change it, but the
photograph is more changed by its context, especially the still photo-
graph, because it is such a compact and portable object. This is why
I tend to favor films over photographs on this question; the film
establishes a proper context for the use of those images, and perhaps
still photographs, in fact, are more vulnerable. I certainly think in
some way a still image is and always will be more memorable. You
can really remember a photograph and you can really describe it, in
a way that you cannot describe two or three minutes of film.
What kinds of photographs do you find pleasing or good?
I do not know what it really means to talk about one's favorite or pre-
ferred photographs. It is funny, I learned something about my taste
this afternoon that I had not seen; the people who organized this set
of events asked for us to suggest ten photographs to be put in the ex-
hibit downstairs in the museum. I sent in a list of nine photographs
that meant something to me, that I had meditated about. One of the
nine pictures could not be obtained, so another photograph by the
same photographer was substituted. That photograph stuck out so
much for me as not belonging with the others. It seemed quite clear to
me that it had a different aesthetic— that anyone who had eyes could
have seen that I would not have chosen that photograph, though I
could have and did choose the other eight. I chose a very straight,
tough, hard edged portrait photograph by Brassai called "Rome-
Naples Express." For some reason they could not get it and put this
soft-focus, sentimental, touristy Brassai photograph of a Paris book-
stall on the Seine. Seeing the eight I had chosen I realized that they—
in contrast with the one I had not — had something in common, even
aesthetically. They all had a hard edge quality and a very high defi-
nition. All of them are upsetting, for one thing. It is funny since I
have never tried to understand what makes me like one photograph
121 Susan Sontag
Irving Penn was born in 1917, in Plain-
field, New Jersey. At art school, from
1934 to 1938, he studied design under
Alexey Brodovitch. Before turning to
the medium of photography, he ex-
plored those of drawing and painting.
Between 1937-39 his drawings appeared
in Harper's Bazaar and in 1942 he was
painting in Mexico. He produced his
first Vogue cover in 1943. His photo-
graphic work has continued to appear
in Vogue up to the present. Mr. Penn
has also photographed commercially
for various advertising and editorial
clients in America and abroad since
1951. He has published two books of
photographs.- Moments Preserved
( 1960) , which was printed in five lan-
guages, and Worlds in a Small Room
(1974). Mr. Penn has exhibited in the
United States and in Europe. Prints of
his work in platinum were shown in
April, 1975, at the Galleria Civica d'Arte
Moderna, Turin, Italy, and at the
Museum of Modern Art, New York, in
May, 1975. His photographs are in the
permanent collection of several Amer-
ican museums, including the Museum
of Modern Art, New York and the Met-
ropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
122 Irving Penn
I see the fashion photographer in his most uncomplicated form as
someone providing a useful service to industry. He is as serious in his
devotion to his work and as necessary to a merchandising economy
as the photographer of automobiles or the photographer of food. He
is well paid, but probably no more so than he should be, given his
usefulness. He is an important link in the industrial-commercial
chain. His job is to record, for publication, the look of a manufactured
commodity, to show its most attractive aspect and perhaps to conceal
its shortcomings in the ancient skill of the marketplace.
I studied with Alexey Brodovitch. He was then art director of •
Harper's Bazaar and one of the great figures in our field. I studied
design with him at art school and was invited by him to work at the
Bazaar as an office boy during two summer vacations. I contributed
drawings to Harper's Bazaar as my first professional work. I worked
with Brodovitch as his assistant on his private assignments and then
with him at a New York department store. At his suggestion I stayed
on alone for one year designing the store's advertising. Then I
painted in Mexico for a year. It had been my dream to paint, but after
a time I began to realize that I would be only a mediocre painter. I
left Mexico, returned to New York and took a job assisting Vogue's
new art director. I became a photographer because I came up against
a blank wall in the work I was trying to do. My job was to suggest pic-
tures for the covers of Vogue. I would think of ideas for the covers
and visit the photographers and tell them what I wanted them to do.
Irving Penn, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn
(Woman in Black Dress, 1947) , Copy-
right © 1947 by Les Editions Conde
A speech delivered at a Wellesley College photographic symposium on April 23,
1975. Published by permission of Irving Penn. Copyright © 1976 by Irving Penn.
123 Irving Penn
This was unheard of in those days. Photographers simply produced
pictures which they presented. They were not receptive to donated
ideas — least of all from a minor member of the staff. I can under-
stand their feelings now, but at the time, I felt that having offered
the ideas and having had them rejected left me no room for con-
tinuing to work at the magazine. I discussed this with the art direc-
tor, Alexander Liberman and said, "I've got to leave because I can't
accomplish what you've asked me to do." He said, "Well, I can under-
stand that. Why don't you do it yourself?" So the first color photo-
graph I ever made became a Vogue cover, and it was on Liberman's
urging and with his friendship and collaboration that I became a
photographer and began the close relationship with him and with
Vogue that continues to this day.
I'm really quite shocked at how time has changed the world. I
don't understand much of what's going on in the women's magazines
today at all, and my immediate reaction is to reject it. But then I think
back to the time when I became a photographer, and I recall that
people then rejected what I did as distasteful.
Irving Penn, Black and White Vogue
Cover, Copyright © 1950 by The Conde
Nast Publications Inc.
124 Irving Penn
Irving Penn, Girl with Tobacco on the
Tip of Her Tongue, Copyright © 1951 by
The Conde Nast Publications Inc.
As a fashion photographer I always worked within the discipline
that the girl I photographed had to be desirable, someone I'd want to
put my arms around. Recently there is a new kind of girl — a girl that
you might want to put your arm around out of pity, a disturbed child
that you would like to soothe.
Fashion photography was very great before I came along and
there were wonderful photographers. Fashion was really in Paris.
The Paris panelled drawing room, which at that time was still the
ideal background for the photographing of elegant women, was un-
known to me. I began to photograph girls in the studio against seam-
less white paper. Isolating a model against a simple white back-
ground was a minor revolution. In exasperation, the magazine's
editors more than once said, "Listen, you've just got to stop doing
that. We're fed up with the girl alone in white space." I am surprised
now that I had the courage to persist. Some years went by, and until
ten or twelve years ago, there were no pictures in the magazine ex-
cept girls against white paper. Now, of course, there's very little of
that. One of the reasons for the change, an art director told me, is
that modern clothes cannot be looked at with the same kind of eye.
They cannot stand as a still life, which they were able to do in the
125 Irving Penn
past. So it's much better to have them taken by a photographer who
uses a very small camera, who doesn't focus well and whose images
are blurred and have a spirit to them. If you have the model walk
along a crowded street and blur it, everything is obscured except for
her spirit and vitality, which hold it all together. Because there is so
little specific that's there, the viewer can project her dreams onto it.
That, I think, is the secret of contemporary photography in maga-
zines. And none of the pictures, with the exception of ones Avedon
takes, can stand the examination either.
I'm not sure that I believe in the tendency today to reveal specific
personal information about a model and create a duality between the
private side and the mannequin side. This is a question that I under-
stand well since I have a wife who was a great model and who faced
the question all the time. As a successful model how much of your
true self as a private person do you allow to get into the public print
without diminishing yourself as a commodity? It's not an easy thing
to decide because you're torn between your own vanity and your pro-
For me, who the model was as a real person was not of any sig-
nificance. She was used as a symbol, and any individualism that she
had, had to be obscured, because she had to be somebody with whom
any reader could have identified. There had to be an anonymous
quality to her, because insofar as she was being specific, she was not
doing her job. A model can in one day, by jumping from taxi to taxi,
and sitting to sitting, pose for a number of photographers and come
out in each case a different person reflecting each photographer's
projection upon her. This is close to home for me. My wife is putting
together a lot of pictures, family pictures she calls them, but many of
them are really professional pictures. She has posed for photogra-
phers from Man Ray and Beaton to Huene, Horst and Avedon, and it
is fascinating to see that to each she is a different person. She shows
me two proofs and asks me which one I prefer and I hardly recognize
her in them, she was so able to change with the photographer's image
The ideal of being a model, which was a very real one in the years
that I began to practice fashion photography, (it was almost like
being a movie star, if you were a great model) has disappeared pretty
much now. Most of the important models feel that they are on their
way to something else. Modeling keeps money coming in while they
go to acting class, make minor movies, or follow other personal
activities. As an end in itself being a model is no longer part of the
Let me give you a typical day of a fashion sitting. At ten o'clock in
the morning a bedraggled girl comes through the door, pulling a bag
behind her, and she looks like the wrath of God. She's this great
beauty; she's gotten there a bit late; she's unmade-up and looks ter-
rible. And she looks kind of adorable too, because she looks like she's
j ust awakened, and she has. She throws herself in front of a mirror
and starts making faces at herself to see whether she's going to be
able to pull herself together; and she turns to somebody there, some
young editor, and says, "Will you please get me some breakfast?" So
out goes the call for breakfast. Then she starts smearing something
on her face. I come in, say good morning, and we say a few silly
words, and then twenty or thirty minutes later, in comes the hair-
dresser. He's late too, telling how terrible everything is, he couldn't
126 Irving Penn
get a taxi, and so on, dragging his bag behind. This goes on and sud-
denly it's noon and people are beginning to think about food. Some-
one sends out for food, and it comes late. About one-thirty or two
o'clock you get her in front of the camera. You only take three pic-
tures, because by four o'clock the hair has gone dead, and has to be
set in curlers again. People come and go with clothes, and they forget
to send the earrings. It's a very time-consuming thing. The important
thing from a photographer's point of view is to hold on to the image
through all this debilitating, weakening nonsense.
As a man, I am pleased by a woman's paint and powder, her
seductive ways of dressing, the little decorations and toys of vanity
that spice her life. As a photographer I enjoy observing and studying
those aspects of life and I do not apologize for my taste that some-
times leans to the frivolous and the superficial.
On the other hand, in portrait photography there is something
more profound that we seek inside a person, while being painfully
aware that a limitation of our medium is that the inside is recordable
only insofar as it is apparent on the outside. There is a definite hour
for the sitting. The subject comes to the door, we sit together for a few
minutes to talk trying to find common ground, a point of sympathy
and contact. During the small talk I make a commitment as to the
visual direction I am going to take. I invite the subject to the camera.
I begin to search for an attitude, and then begin to expose film. I fol-
low my plan through to what may be a dead end or to success. Then
we shake hands and say good-bye. Even the most sympathetic sitting
never takes more than an hour and a half, small talk included. More
often it's over in thirty or forty minutes.
The precarious point is where I as the photographer commit my-
self to the direction the picture will follow. This decision is based
mostly on instinct and can turn out to have been a mistake, but I stick
with it. I have found that for me it is fatal to change directions radi-
cally in the middle of a sitting. I lose the subject. His confidence goes,
his eyes become glassy and I had better close the camera.
Working professionally leaves little room for failures. This is
especially true in portraiture. Someone is invited to come and pose
for you and you make a picture. If it's not very good it must still be
published. It is embarrassing and difficult for the magazine to say,
"Look, these pictures didn't come off, you better do it again." It would
also be a waste of money.
But a point I'd like to make is that having to always produce a
publishable result forces you to play it safer than you'd like to, be-
cause the result must be publishable. In journalism, and even more
so in advertising photography, the unforgivable sin is to come out of
a sitting without something that can be put on the printed page.
That's worse than banality.
I began work in portraiture as a parallel activity to fashion pho-
tography. Vogue, the magazine I worked for, consumed an endless
number of photographs of dresses and of beautiful women, but pep-
pered through its pages were photographs of people in the arts and
public life. It was the style of the publication to have these pictures
be very personal and expressive (for want of a better word) where
sometimes the personality of the photographer became as important
as that of the subject himself. Portraiture for me was a welcome bal-
ance to the fashion diet and I was happy to go back and forth from
one to the other.
127 Irving Penn
Irving Penn, Louts Jouvet, New York.
1951, Copyright © 1960 by The Conde
Nast Publications Inc.
I invited many of the remarkable people of our time, mostly in the
arts, because that was my taste and also most useful to the magazine,
to come and pose. The invitation was usually quite loose. Since most
pictures were not being pointed to a definite publication date, we
were able to say, "when you are next in New York," or "when you
come to America."
I recall there was always a more or less noticeable difference in
mood in photographing people in the studio and in their homes. Sub-
jects who came to the strangeness of the studio sometimes seemed to
feel themselves at a disadvantage, that their stature was not entirely
evident, that their identity had to be established before we began to
photograph. I sympathized with and understood this feeling and
tried not to confront them too soon with the apparatus of the picture
taking. There was always a time to talk, a soothing of apprehensive-
ness, that was a necessary prelude. I almost always did my home-
work before a sitting. I saw it as a discipline as important as checking
out the equipment. Knowing a writer's or a painter's work, or having
seen a dancer perform, is a vital ingredient in a portrait sitting. He's
sometimes overwhelmed when you know some little thing about his
professional existence. In a creative person the fabric of self-belief
can be very thin and easily damaged.
I have at times seduced myself into a mystical belief in the pene-
trative power of the camera, but reflection always brings me back to
accepting the picture process as simply the bounce back of light from
a momentary arrangement of atoms that are a face. But that is not
to say that the power of a tender word, or a clumsy one, to affect those
atoms, can be overstated. When the light and the situation for the
128 Irving Penn
Irving Penn, Picasso, Cannes, 1957,
Copyright © 1960 by Irving Penn,
photographed on assignment for
portrait picture are found and the sculptural arrangement made, it
may be that the word is after all at the heart of the whole thing.
I myself have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for
the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel. I sympathize with
and respect anyone who, confronted with a portrait camera, is aware
of the consequences. Responses to the prospect of being examined by
a camera are as different as people are, but one reaction that has
been common enough for me to speak of, (and probably especially
typical of the kind of subject I have had) was that of the person in the
public eye who came to the door of the studio and seemed to be push-
ing ahead of him an image of himself that he wanted to have publicly
presented; and in this enterprise he wanted (and even expected!) my
collaboration. That kind of person could only be disappointed, (some-
times enraged) by the persistent penetration that portrait photog-
raphy meant to me as I understood my job and my commitment.
Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put
on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. This
facade is protective and they are most pleased if the photographer
will idealize their fond image of themselves. I am not at all tender,
(I think of myself as neutral) as I seek to make an incision in the
presented facade. I do not think this is cruel. Very often what lies
behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows
or dares to believe. In any event, as a journalist I have always felt
that my obligation was to the reader and not to the vanity of the
The hardest thing in the world for me is to photograph somebody
that I care about in a personal way, like a member of the family, be-
129 Irving Penn
Irving Perm, Cecil Beaton, London,
1950, Copyright © 1958 by Les Editions
Conde Nast S.A.
cause the photographic process is basically somewhat cruel. It's the
kind of thing that you wouldn't want to subject someone to whom
you really care about.
The idyllic existence of doing portraits for Vogue went on for two
or three fruitful years in New York. And a couple of times each year,
I was able to make trips to visit subjects in foreign countries. Portrait
making on the road was similar to that in New York, although it was
simpler and the equipment more portable. In New York, I depended
on a large view camera, a wide bank of electric lights, and a heavy
tripod. While traveling, I used the Rolleiflex, a light tripod, and the
light from the nearest window. Daylight is the most delicious of the
several kinds of light available to a photographer.
Over a period of years, my assignments have taken me to far
places, where I have had the privilege of photographing anonymous,
simple people, with most of whom I could not communicate in words.
This deficiency left me unusually dependent on making use of the
externals of their appearance — their costume, body paint, hair, and
face make-up. The special skills and experience that came of fashion
photography, being able to quickly find the essence of a costume or
an attitude, were invaluable. But since these subjects were also com-
plete people, there was always the potential of a surprise human re-
sponse that could enrich the picture. In the strangeness of our re-
lationship I could not depend on this happening, but it did happen
often enough to make those results particularly worthwhile.
130 Irving Penn
I wonder if the limitations I've spoken of were not sometimes more
imagined than real. Because of the difference in our lives, even words
in common would not have bridged the gap. In any event the lack of
words threw my dependence onto physical touch. I found that a
jungle person in the Pacific responded as warmly to a gentle arm
around his shoulder as a nubile young girl in Africa did. And the tone
of my voice, which must at times have sounded to them more like
animal murmurings than intelligent speech, was everywhere under-
stood. At times I felt a mutual understanding and human closeness
with people in the savannahs of Africa or the jungles of New Guinea,
that I have only rarely felt at home.
I didn't realize that a book was in the making until I was halfway
through it. I was taking people out of their natural environment,
putting them into studios that I had taken with me or built, and
working in various parts of the world by daylight. One day I realized
that there was no other place I wanted to go to continue this series:
we had used up the world, and I realized that Worlds in a Small Room
was finished. It was then important to put the individual essays to-
gether in book form, and to publish them in order to be free of the
material and to be able to go on to new work.
I confess I am sensitive about this, but to tell you the truth, the
book was either clobbered or generally ignored. It is still hard to find
it in most bookshops. The usual criticism was, "Why was it necessary
to do pictures this way? Why couldn't you have photographed your
subjects where they were instead of taking them out of their own
circumstances into this unnatural environment?" It is as though no
one had bothered to read the text.
I'm interested in why it is not acceptable to people in book form,
since it had such enormous reader interest when it came out each
time in a number of Vogue Christmas issues. My relationship with
Vogue through the years has been nearly an ideal one. During the
most productive period my assignments were free and generous,
often just, "Bring us a treasure for the next Christmas issue." That
was all I really wanted to hear: usually they gave me a year to com-
plete the assignment. It took many months of preparation; it would
start with dinner with the ambassador of that country. You couldn't
just barge in ; it's too precarious. You might do that with a camera on
your hip, but you can't deposit yourself in the middle of Africa with
an entourage and a studio and say, "Look, I'm here."
One session that became part of the book may be interesting to
talk about, the sitting with the Hell's Angels. I was terrified of them,
physically frightened. They're terrifying, psychotic people who can
kill as easily as they can love. I must tell you something that I did for
self-preservation; I asked them to bring their families. So, in fact, at
the time their wives and children were in the studio.
The ritual of arranging the sittings with the Angels was amusing.
Our side sent an emissary, and their side sent an emissary and the
emissaries talked in a preliminary meeting like foreign ministers. It
was decided that we would all meet in a San Francisco park at noon.
At about one minute to twelve we left our parked car. Then suddenly
we heard the screech and rising pitch of their motorbikes as they
came near. They parked and we approached them across the grass.
They stayed where they were. We went to them.
I think they were important to me ; they were visually interesting.
The sitting itself was frightening. It was kind of a chancy thing to do
131 Irving Penn
Irving Penn, Andaglimb Warrior, New
Guinea, 1970, Copyright © 1974 by
Irving Penn, photographed on assign-
ment for Vogue Magazine.
132 Irving Penn
Irving Penn, Cuzco Children, 1948,
Copyright © 1960 by The Conde Nast
Irving Penn, A Young Berber Shep-
herdess, Morocco, 1971, Copyright©
1974 by Irving Penn, photographed on
assignment for Vogue Magazine.
133 Irving Penn
Irving Penn, Hell's Angel — Doug,
Copyright © 1947 by Cowles Communi-
134 Irving Penn
and I wanted to see if I could pull it off. And it only half worked be-
cause I couldn't really tangle with them. I couldn't make a real pic-
ture. I could simply get an image of them and that had to do, because
they were just unmanageable. In my apprehensiveness, I hurried the
pictures so that the results are only half successful, although no
other subjects in the book fascinate readers as the Angels do.
As a photographer, the realism of the real world is something
almost unbearable to me. There's too much accidental painfulness in
it. I must tell you that walking through that room downstairs and
looking at the walls, I realized that there is one very old-fashioned
photographer there and that's me. The photographic process for me
is primarily simplification and elimination. It's that simplification
that I need in a picture that really relates more to old painting and
old sculpture. Dealing with the accidental accumulation of things
that occurs in real life, as Walker Evans did so brilliantly, is some-
thing I can't cope with.
Photography disturbs me when it is used as propaganda, however
benign. I am especially sensitive to this because it is an area of per-
sonal struggle in my work. Since I have been a commercial photog-
rapher almost all of my professional life I have come now to yearn for
a personal photography that does not try to manipulate anyone.
Gene Smith's extraordinary pictures are disturbing to me not
only because they show horror but also because with them, he wants
to bring about certain political, social changes. To me that is a form
of commercial photography. He thinks of himself as a great photo-
journalist; that is his genius. But for me, at least, I find his genius
more in his individual images which are much finer than the units
assembled as essays. I dwell on this because it's very important for
photographers to face what they are trying to accomplish with their
Smith's pictures are among the most propagandistic pictures
ever taken, and I'm not sure that is a very lasting quality. Consider
Richard Avedon. He is brilliant in almost everything he does. But he
undervalues his work done for commerce. Yet I would not be sur-
prised if his most lasting pictures were among the things he cares
least about. I feel sure that Avedon's pictures done for advertisement
and as commercial fashion pages in Harper's Bazaar and Vogue are
among his most brilliant photographs, and stand as one of the vital
records of our lives today. You say that Robert Frank told you that
he does not value his still pictures as much as his films. I am very
touched by Robert Frank's pictures. Unlike Smith's, they are passive
observations about society. I am pleased that he is not trying to bring
about any change in me. Maybe the artist is least able to appraise
what he himself does.
I'd like also to mention another area of my work, more private,
and as yet unseen. Next month, May 1975, at New York's Museum of
Modern Art, a group of pictures will be shown, large platinum prints
of cigarettes on fine paper which I sensitize myself. I began to love
what occurs when you coat good paper by hand with these remark-
able metals. My delight in the material itself makes me seek out sub-
ject matter that will best take advantage of its possibilities.
My first work in platinum metals, as I was learning the medium,
was in reprinting early work which had been done for the printed
page, done to reach its existence in ink on a high speed press. While
the platinum versions are very beautiful, they are sort of bastard
135 Irving Penn
Irving Perm, Theatre Accident, Copy-
right © 1947 by The Conde Nast Publi-
136 Irving Penn
Irving Penn, Cigarette, Copyright ©
1974 by Irving Penn.
pictures, and I have very mixed feelings about them. They're being
shown in an Italian museum at this moment, and perhaps that's
where they belong. There's something somewhat uncontemporary
about them. John Szarkowski, looking at these pictures said, "You
know, it makes clear to me that some pictures are better in silver,
some are better in platinum, but some are better in ink." He was
right. These first platinum prints of mine were translations of images
made for the printed page. Some vitality was sacrificed when they
were beautifully printed, because they were really journalistic in
their original conception.
Whereas the things to be shown in the Modern museum are com-
pletely contemporary. They may be disturbing, but they were not
done for the printed page. They won't even look good on the printed
page. But they are right for their medium and are meant to be seen
as objects, not in ink.
What I yearn for in criticism of photography is a tactile reaction,
something more visual, rather than just concepts. The contemporary
critics speak around the outside of photography; they speak of it as
a social document, as all kinds of things except what it is sitting
there in front of us. For me, photography is nothing new. The ma-
chine is new, but photography is just the present stage of man's vis-
ual history. What I yearn for as a photographer is someone who will
connect the work of photographers to that of sculptors and painters
of the past. I don't think we get this from contemporary criticism.
137 Irving Penn
Robert Martin Coles was born in 1929
and educated at Harvard, Columbia,
and the University of Chicago. At pres-
ent, he is a research psychiatrist with
the Harvard University Health Ser-
vices. He has authored hundreds of ar-
ticles and over fifteen books, most of
which are aimed at dissolving the
stereotypes that different groups of
Americans hold of one another. His
work has won him numerous awards
and honorary degrees; the three vol-
umes of Children of Crisis earned,
among other distinctions, the Pulitzer
Prize and the Weatherford Prize. He
currently serves on the editorial board
of Aperture and is working with a pho-
tographer in the creation of two more
volumes of Children of Crisis, one on
Indians, Chicanos, and Eskimos, the
other on children of upper middle class
138 Robert Coles
The whole issue of the relationship of writers to photographers is in
certain ways a microcosm of some of the exploitative injustices that
go on in this society. If I were a photographer I would be very hesitant
to have the wordiness of another discipline be the means by which
whatever I'm doing becomes known to, evaluated by, and responded
to by other people. There is tension, I think, between the nature of our
society (which is so wordy) and what the photographer is about. I
don't mean to get nasty about this, bringing in St. Paul, but there is
this issue of "the word," both as a source of power and of orthodoxy
and ultimately of persecution, vis-a-vis "looking" and then record-
ing, and then not saying anything, but simply going on to look once
again and give life to or permanence to what is seen.
We go to museums and we watch people. They'll look at some-
thing, and they can't just look at it; they have to go and talk about it.
The ultimate test is, can it be put into words? That's what I mean by
exploiting the relationship. So many photographers I know will tell
you that if some wordy character like myself is willing to write an
introduction or a text to accompany photographs, then it can be pub-
lished. Photographs themselves, except in very rare cases, do not
stand on their own. I defy anyone to accept a text that would say:
"LOOK, exclamation mark, signed Robert Coles." That wouldn't get
very far. But if I go on and on and on and draw upon my own work
and am eloquent, then they say, "The photographs are beautiful." Or,
"The photographs are eloquent." I mean, how can the photographs
be eloquent? Well, they're eloquent in the eyes of those who are pre-
occupied with words. So they use words like, "They eloquently com-
plement Dr. Coles' moving text. At which point one is just ready to
write to the critic and say, never mind!
While writers and essayists assault one another, divide them-
selves from one another, carry on with one another in ways that can
only be called fratricidal, there is no one to pass judgment upon them
with a picture: a picture of a writer at work, sitting at his desk pour-
ing out venom, invading another field with a pen. The picture cannot
do justice to what has happened between this mind and the neuro-
physiological system that connects with the ballpoint pen or the type-
writer. But that process, if you will, can somehow come to an entire
field with devastation and all too much authority, once published in
an influential magazine. No one dares take issue with it, not even
with the language. Photographers don't understand the complexities
of that particular language. Writers don't understand it and are
afraid to acknowledge that they don't understand it. And the tyr-
anny goes on.
Why is it that so many photographers have to get involved with
and be dependent on these writers? Is it the power of words, the glory
of words, the editors, the publishers, the whole culture, the way we
are? And what can one do to break out of that? How can the whole
society break out of it, never mind me or the photographer? Write
back to the publisher and say, "Listen, buddy! Cut it out! Why don't
you write to Benjamin Britten and ask him to compose an opera and
link it up to these photographs? And how about a sculptor?" But ap-
parently, paper, which is what the writer and the photographer have
in common, is not enough. We need words, texts, introductions to
something that one looks at which seems to be quite enough some-
times, not nearly enough at other times. But believe me, not salvage-
able by an eloquent text.
139 Robert Coles
I constantly get sent photographs of people by social activists be-
cause I'm supposed to be a social activist and because I've written
some texts to photography books. I certainly don't know anything
about photography that has to do with the tradition of photography.
I have no right to be a critic, although it's a commentary on this field
that if I wanted to become a photography critic since I write book re-
views, I could. That shows you how awful the whole situation is. An
ignorant person like me could become, if he wanted to, a photography
critic. I could write a weekly column for the New Republic on photog-
raphy books if I had the time and wanted to do it, which is a disgust-
ing commentary. Where are the people who have some ability to eval-
uate photographs? Maybe those people aren't interested in writing a
single word about them. This is a dilemma.
There are now very few reviews of the relatively few books on
photography that have come out. So I get the feeling that there's a
power problem here of some kind and that there's a clique of people
that seems to control this profession. The great American tradition is
supposed to have diversity and many centers of power, but I don't
get that feeling about photography. For instance, Alex Harris may
be the worst photographer that ever lived. He is very good— but let
us speculate. Now, why should he have done one book and be work-
ing on another one just because of me? No one has really criticized or
evaluated his photographs. They've evaluated the text that goes with
the photographs. In each case they say, "moving, eloquent." The poor
man needs a critic, but no one is giving him any help. And even if I
could push him into the Museum of Modern Art, which I might be
able to do from sheer arrogance and power manipulation, it's obscene
how this whole thing works.
Earlier today I was discussing with some students some of the
irony of my own work. I was trained in psychiatry, where even dreams
have been taken over by the wordy people who insist on talking about
free associations. How often do we acknowledge to ourselves, to the
world at large, that a dream is not the interpretations; it's not even
what is said by the patient who has the dream; but the dream is pic-
tures? The dream is a series of pictures. There are some physiologists
who say that the words come when we wake up. We don't know. How
will we ever know? Who's ever going to be able to disentangle the
mind? In any event, at a minimum, the dream is pictures. But you
read the interpretation of dreams, you read people talking about
dreams, and you get the feeling that a dream is someone who is
asleep who is talking, who then wakes up and remembers what has
been said, then tells it to the psychiatrist who listens, and then does
yet more talking. And the whole thing is then written up, then read,
then talked about and reviewed, and there are the words. Ad infini-
tum, if not, at times, ad nauseum.
I'm doubly tied to language. I'm a psychiatrist and so I listen to
people talk (or at least I was trained to be a psychiatrist and was
trained to listen to people talk, by people who, in turn, listened to me
talk and made comments on what I was saying to them) . When I
started doing the work that I've been doing for the past twenty years
I thought that I had better have a tape-recorder. And the reason I
thought I needed a tape-recorder is that since I'm a scientist, if I say
I have tape-recorded interviews then that will be science. If I say that
I listened to someone and here is the heart of what I heard, or the es-
sence of what I heard, or even worse, if I say I listened to someone and
140 Robert Coles
I will try to evoke something about that person for you, then I would
slip out of my authoritative, all too influential situation, and end up
without even the authority that a novelist or a poet would have. So
one treasures whatever credentials and authority one has come upon
and purchases the nearest Sony, and goes home to a wife who is fed
up with the Sony and maybe even with the methodological design of
the research project. After a few weeks, one begins to think of one-
self as a little confused and a little troubled and a little wacky. So
then one decides to get rid of the Sony, but one can always say one
has tape-recorded interviews because one has tape-recorded some
interviews. And out in the "field" one listens and watches television
and doesn't do much talking, particularly because people don't want
to do much talking. Why should I talk? And what is one going to ask
them? "Well, how's it going today?" "Well, it's going pretty good."
"Well, how are you feeling today?" "Feeling pretty good."
This is the age of self-consciousness as we all know. Everything
that we do and say has to be put into words and we have to be aware
if we breathe. If we speak, if we have a thought, it's related to some-
thing else we've thought or spoken about. We have a motive, a pur-
pose, and this must be analyzed and verbalized. We have people
meeting in what's called a sensitivity group, where they talk to one
another and put out on the table what's happening to them. And God
forbid if anyone keeps quiet. That isn't a matter of civility, or abhor-
ence of rudeness and vulgarity and banality; that is "resistance,"
and a problem. And the problem will be solved if it is spoken and if
it's all out there. And of course one goes round and round, and what
comes out there but all the mess that we all are? And this is a "dis-
covery." And it is "therapeutic." One reports to a profession, to meet-
ings, so one comes home and writes up, "This person was so-and-so
and I think this and such-and-such."
Let me move from here to a story told by an Indian grandmother
in New Mexico. The story is of an anthropologist who for years was
collecting "data" on a reservation. He collected it, and collected it,
and collected it. And she, as an informant, helped him collect it. He
wrote it up and then something happened. He stopped collecting his
data and started making comments. One is told by this woman that
he wasn't even interested in writing his Ph.D. thesis, and that he
didn't even care about all the data that he had been collecting.
Whereupon one thinks, "Oh my God, a collapse." Then one is even
told that he was drinking a lot. "Well, an alcoholic collapse." Then,
he used to start to walk away from some of the homes out toward the
mesas and look up at the sky, and sometimes take out his bottle and
have a drink, and then come back. And lo and behold, as he started
doing this more and more, he moved his data out of the house where
he was staying and put it in his open convertible car (and this is "The
Treasure of the Sierra Madre" coming up) , and one day, rain, wind,
thunder and lightning, and the dispersal of all this into the country-
side. End of story, whereupon ever acutely one turns to her and says
(because we are clinicians and we have a case history and we have to
know something) , "Well, then what happened?" And then one is told,
"That's what happened." At which point, one thinks one needs a lit-
tle bit more, how do you say it, training?
Again, what has all this got to do with photography? I started
doing this writing and I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. My wife car-
ried around a brownie camera which she liked to use with certain
141 Robert Coles
abandon. I started asking her if I could look at some of the pictures
she'd taken of the children whom I had met and come to know. As I
was trying to write about the children, somehow I felt that in those
pictures there was something of a particular child that would come
across to me that my mind needed to have come across, that all of the
words I had written down or that I had circling around in my head
were not getting at. This does not mean that there is not a value to
words. This does not mean that words and pictures are antagonists.
It simply means that there are times for some people when maybe a
picture means something and might even change the direction of
some words. Anything that will get one away from the malignant
wordiness of social science is redemptive. Anything that will some-
how puzzle one, and make one feel that one is inadequate to what one
has seen with words, might help with words.
Alex Harris (a gifted photographer friend of mine) and I have been
doing work together in New Mexico and in Alaska. It's the first time
that I've really worked with a photographer and I should tell you
something about how he's done his work. He must be a genius meth-
odologically if not photographically. He's gone and talked to people
in New Mexico who are sick and tired of anthropologists, who've been
worked over by anthropologists, as you may know now, for about a
hundred years. I am sure that the anthropologists must have been
there even before the gold seekers were there. His "technique" is to
hitchhike and be picked up by someone or to stumble into someone
in a market place and talk to him. Pretty soon they're introducing
him all over the place and he's taking all these pictures — the children
love to have their pictures taken — and so he prints.
There is an increasing number of photographs in Alaska in the
hands of the Eskimos due to his work there. Whole villages have seen
themselves, in a way. And I don't mean to be facetious and sly about
it: they have seen themselves. In a lot of these homes they don't have
mirrors and they're not used to looking at themselves. They have no
notion of what they look like, and could not care less, I might add. We
know that to "look" is an important thing. I know myself that when
these photographers come out to take my picture for magazines and
so forth, it's terrible, because what I'm confronted with is my vanity,
my narcissism, to use all those words, my egoism, my notion of my-
self. Will this come across to the "reader," to whom I can get it to
come across with words? With words it's under my control but once
I lose that control, because the photographer has it, I feel threatened.
We all, as you know, have a notion of ourselves that has to do with
mirrors and more mirrors. And I have three boys and I noticed the
other day that each one has a mirror. They look at themselves in the
mirror, and we teach them to look at themselves in the mirror. The
point is, they have a notion of how they must appear, how they should
appear, how other people look at them, how they look, and all those
words having to do with looking, and being looked at, and a sense of
In our house we have these Walker Evans photographs all over,
and Alex Harris photographs, and Doris Ulmann photographs. I no-
ticed that my children never look at them. Maybe it's because there's
just so much around for them to see: they're watching television,
they have their mirrors in their rooms, there are all these things on
the walls, we take them to museums. They look at one another be-
142 Robert Coles
Alex Harris, Charlie Cleveland, Shung-
nak, Alaska, 1974.
Walker Evans, Coal Miner's House,
Scott's Run, West Virginia, 1936.
143 Robert Coles
cause they hear their mother and their father saying, "Tuck in your
shirt. Your grandmother and grandfather are coming up and you
have to look well." I've never heard parents in New Mexico, the rural
South, or Appalachia say, "Go. Really look good because someone's
coming to the house." But in these areas there's Sunday, and there's
church, and there's scrubbing up, yet it is not done with quite the self-
consciousness. It's done for God, whom no one sees, and it's some-
what different. This notion of what is to be seen and what is not to be
seen about the self has a cultural dimension to it.
Some of the children I have come to know, like those in New Mex-
ico and Alaska, and especially the rural children in Appalachia, have
shown me what they see. Now they haven't been trained to see any-
thing. They haven't taken any course in "visual this" or "art that" or
photography. The natural landscape is part of their education. It
doesn't get them any place when someone comes in and gives them
a test. They are still called culturally disadvantaged by all these cul-
turally disadvantaged people who come out of the Northeast and
study them, who see very little. Actually, a lot of these characters
have restricted vision, but they don't know it. I speak personally on
that, not to criticize others. I have been astonished by how much more
I see now than I did ten years ago. Not because I'm any smarter or
better trained, but I have spent enough time with these children for
them to have shown me what to look for in what they see.
Children growing up in some parts of this country may have a
"self-image" as an anthropologist sees it, and that isn't the visual
thing that we are connected with. It is interesting to see upper middle
class and suburban children draw pictures of themselves in contrast
with children from New Mexico, Alaska and Alabama. Children of
the middle class have a notion of what they should be producing with
the crayon or with paint and this notion is tied to what they have seen
of themselves and have been taught to see of themselves as they've
been growing up. It affects both what the child draws and the self-
consciousness of the child if the child knows, if the child thinks to
himself, "I look this way, or ought to look this way. Consequently,
when I'm going to draw a picture of myself since this pain-in-the-
neck character is asking me to do these things, then I've got to do it
this way to evoke this reality which is part of my subjectivity." But
imagine children who don't look at and who aren't taught to look at
themselves. In New Mexico or Alaska, if you ask children to draw a
picture of themselves, they draw a picture of a mesa, or a canyon, or
a tree, or the sky, and then you keep on waiting: "Where is you'?
Draw a picture of yourself." And finally you get a little thing, a smear,
and think, "Oh my God, is this a self-image? Is it reproducible in a
book? What are they going to say in Atlantic-Little, Brown?" Particu-
larly in the case of Alaska, where the drawings are all white and
where the only thing the children are interested in is a little chalk,
which I finally came up with in a moment of revelation, or white
crayon, which has never been used before and can finally be used
now. White crayon never even used by white people, but now used
by Eskimo people, of course, because if you insist on bugging them
with these drawings, they'll try and draw you something about the
world. And if you want them in it you might get a line here or even a
circle in white, a face. If you want to get academic and also romantic
about it and make comparisons, many of the children of New Mexico
and Alaska actually draw and paint as if they were Chinese or Jap-
144 Robert Coles
anese artists with a notion of nature that is much more important
than any notion they have of themselves. Now, does that mean that
they don't have any sense of themselves? Does that mean that there's
something deficient? Or does it mean that they simply are neither
really interested in, nor have been brought up to evoke themselves
in, a visual way? Their use of their eyes has to do with the landscape
and has to do with the outside world; it's not an inner thing. Conse-
quently, they are having an extraordinary experience with this
young photographer, Alex Harris, who's handing out these prints
out there in these obscure villages. And they're looking at these per-
haps the way we first looked at a television or a movie screen. Eskimo
children certainly know about the movies. The movies and what tele-
vision there is (which is not in the villages, but certainly is in the
cities) , is for them part of the language. But it's outside themselves
to have this immediate experience with one's self through a photo-
graph or with one's family through a photograph. It's a relatively
rare thing. In some homes the men who went into the Army brought
back from military service little twenty-five cent pictures which were
regarded by some Eskimo families as we would regard the acquisi-
tion of a signed Picasso print: a very special thing to put in a special
place in the house.
I found those pictures Doris Ulmann took in the South helpful to look
at when I was writing about some of the children I got to know. Some-
how a little picture was what you call a "methodological aid" (all
those words that the social scientists use to obscure everything!) . So
I have been interested to hear lately that Doris Ulmann is called a
pictorialist. Beware of all these people that have names! Someone
wrote about her and talked about her romanticization. I thought it
was an outrage because, you see, this is another problem. She, after
all, went and took great pains at a particular moment when it wasn't
as fashionable as it is now, went down to South Carolina and Appa-
lachia and took these strange, haunting pictures. Now someone
says she "romanticizes." Well, against what criteria? Has this person
ever been in this area? Does he know what these people look like?
How can a man writing in New York say, "pictorialism, romanticiza-
tion," while someone else looks at it and says, "This is exactly what
this is like; this isn't romantic at all, and there's nothing "pictorial"
about it. It's factual, not pictorial."?
You know, I don't mean to be harsh against necessary words like
"pictorialism," although it does bother me when I hear "romanticiza-
tion," because that means there's a distortion of reality or a denial
of an aspect of human existence. Well, maybe we have our own preju-
dices that are not only cultural, but have a visual quality to them. We
have a notion in our minds of what a rural, Southern, black, share-
cropper tenant farmer looks like. The sources of our visual prejudices
would be interesting to document.
I remember once going into a migrant farmer's shack in Florida,
in a town called Belle Glade. Now there are about 100,000 migrants in
this area. Belle Glade somehow intrigued me, so I wandered around
there for a great number of days, and eventually weeks. And I came
to a cabin, where it seemed the people were the most down and out.
I just thought, "This is the end of the world, this cabin. It's the end of
America, it's the end of everything. " And no matter how brutal a
photographer could be, I would always say reality is more brutal.
145 Robert Coles
Doris Ulmann, Cleaver Headers and
Two of His Children, near Cleveland,
Doris Ulmann, Ella Webster, Texana,
near Murphy, North Carolina, circa
146 Robert Coles
And yet, knowing these people, one afternoon I came in and the
mother was standing there with one hand on her daughter's back,
and with the other hand she had some water that she had gone out-
side to get (they have no running water) . She was pouring it on a
plant, the one plant in that house. She had a plant in that house. A
lovely little plant and she was watering that plant, and suddenly, I've
never seen anything like this before, here was beauty that was being
nourished. Now I'm not just saying it to make it sound like a good lit-
tle story. The fact is, I hadn't even noticed that plant, because I didn't
want to see that. All I was documenting was the misery and degra- .
dation of these lives. So the point is that I had not seen something
that was right before my eyes. Talk about distortions! I could have
told you so many other things about that family, about the way they
lived, and about the work they had done. I had actually gone out in
the field and worked with them, cutting celery, breaking my blasted
back, doing all that kind of minute documentary reportage, and I
had missed that. Now there was a softness to that moment that came
across in her body, and the light was there, and the plant was there
to get the sun. It was so different from those same people standing in
front of that cabin looking like the end of America. So it isn't just a
matter of style, I think. It's a matter of different moments in the same
lives and whether the particular person, be he a writer or a photog-
rapher, wants to respond to it.
I have the feeling that after the photographer has come to know
the people, the situation ultimately becomes an extension of what his
own purposes are. If he wants to emphasize or has emphasized for
himself one part of that tradition, he will find it in reality and cap-
ture it. If he's looking for another side he will find that and capture
it, which is sort of like what I do. I mean, if I'm looking for trouble
and want to emphasize trouble, then I'll find it. If I'm looking for
strengths, I'll find them too, although I wasn't prepared maybe, by
my prejudices to find them. This attitude is also interesting and re-
lates to the whole academic tradition and what it teaches us to want
to see. Particularly with the social sciences and all this talk about cul-
tural disadvantage and cultural deprivation, we are systematically
educated to find missing in people certain things, to the point that we
don't see them when they're there.
I have an intense dislike for Diane Arbus. I don't like her photo-
graphs and I don't like the cult that's been made of them. Maybe it's
because I'm a psychiatrist, because some part of me feels that that's
wrong, that that isn't the whole of the reality. Or maybe it is that I
don't want that reality evoked in photographs. But I just know that
you could go into a mental hospital and you wouldn't have to come
out with what Diane Arbus sees. That's, I guess, what I'm trying to
say. I just know from my own experience in hospitals that it isn't
only like that; people are not only like that. This is, in a sense, a cari-
cature of what those people are like.
I'll tell you what the difference is between Eugene Smith and
Arbus. For instance, take the dwarfs and that striking, horrible pho-
tograph of the mother and the child in the bath. Nothing could be
more grotesque or horrible, but Smith is not romanticizing that, he
isn't making it beautiful. When I look at his photographs, I feel the
horror, but also the humanity, to use that cliche, in all its wickedness
and grandeur (and I use these words advisedly) in all people: rich or
poor, dwarfed, mercury-poisoned, elegant, intellectual, whatever.
147 Robert Coles
Diane Arbus, Christmas Tree in a Liv-
ing Room in Levittown, Long Island,
1963. The Museum of Modern Art.
Diane Arbus, Woman with a Veil
on Fifth Avenue, New York City, 1968.
The Museum of Modern Art.
148 Robert Coles
Diane Arbus, A Young Brooklyn Fam-
ily Going for a Sunday Outing, New
York City, 1966.
And if that's brought out of me, I don't think I'm being used. It's
bringing out the part of me that isn't the animal, that thinks and
worries and is concerned, even though there is an animal-like side in
me and in all of us. But there is a side that goes beyond self-centered-
ness, that goes out and reaches out to people, feels for people, and is
the only hope for the survival of this world. And that's what Smith is
worried about, the survival of this world and its value. And Arbus is
saying, I guess, "Look at it, this is awful!" It is awful, but it isn't only
awful, and I think Smith never lets you forget. And I know "hopeful"
can be banal, and "hopeful" can be cheap optimism of the American
phony kind, but there's some lovely tender side that he finds that is
missing in Arbus.
A couple of years ago, I was asked by an American magazine to do
a profile of Walker Evans. I could never bring myself to do it. I did
read Hilton Kramer in the Sunday Times 1 and he said that Walker
Evans isn't appreciated by a lot of people. He said that we see the man
who went to Alabama and South Boston and took photographs, but
that a lot of us don't understand the aesthetics and the surfaces of
the photographs. Well, maybe we don't. I resent the duality there. I
think he has in those photographs all of Oscar Handlin and Steven
Phernstrom, and all of the social psychologists, who go running
around doing studies, and all of Children of Crisis, and on and on.
There's something in those homes that he has captured. And it isn't
just a matter of those aesthetic words, and those academic words. Of
course, there's technical expertise, and an interest in surfaces and
1. The New York Times, December 1, 1974.
149 Robert Coles
Walker Evans, Sharecropper's Family,
Hale County, Alabama, 1936.
arrangements. But there is also something else that's connecting in
some way, even if it wasn't his personal inclination to be emotionally
connected. He connects a viewer with those people in a non-exploit-
ative way. The interest in and the response to part of the world does
But I hope I'm not a narrow-minded Marxist critic who feels that
the only beauty is proletarian beauty. The subjects of Irving Penn's
photographs are human beings who are entitled to documentation.
There's a grandeur there, but there is also a class issue of some kind.
A certain kind of person with a different view of what the world is like
might say that they are the ultimate expression of the bourgeoisie
and that Penn is documenting their arrogance, parochialism, beauty,
self-importance and their poseur quality.
How can Penn talk about Eugene Smith's work as propaganda?
This word "propaganda." I mean, my God, here is a man who gives
you a few words and he tells you what he's trying to do, presumably
in the artistic tradition. He's driven apparently to say what he's inter-
ested in doing. In that sense, I suppose all art is propaganda. But you
see how these words get thrown around: one man's propaganda is
obviously another man's beautiful vision. And what can we do? You
know, we're not in the field of chemistry or physics so there's nothing
that can be proved here.
I would like to talk about The Old Ones in New Mexico. 2 People
say, "Well, you know, the way you write about the way people them-
selves talk is not like the pictures." Why do people have to look the
way they talk? Maybe the way people look is one thing about them
and the way they talk is quite another. Maybe in some cases, the way
they look is their moment of reserve and truth, and the way they talk
is their moment of fear and panic as they come to terms with you.
And maybe a writer will eventually say, "I'm sick and tired of even
2. Robert Coles, The Old Ones in New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New
Mexico Press, December 1973.
150 Robert Coles
pretending to say that what I'm writing are the tape-recorded words."
But I am now getting unashamedly into what Flannery O'Connor
would call 'mystery and manners.' Mystery and manners is a good
way to describe a half-decent social science which is yet to be born.
And all I can do with these words I write is to pray that somehow,
something coming out of me will have to do with the people I write
A writer's obligation at this point is to shut up with the word "I"
and maybe try to devise a way of describing what he has heard and
seen in a way that is not the traditional first person narrative, not.to
mention the expository social science style. Now I don't know how
you do that, although I'm trying to find that out, and I think it comes
across in The Old Ones in New Mexico. First of all, if you want a sort
of analysis of the difference, one by definition is compelled to have
many much smaller statements from the people, because they are,
indeed, a relatively silent people, or a terse people, or a laconic people.
But what about people who are not interested in talking under any
circumstances? Not because you are there, by the way, and bothering
them, but because the silence is part of their being. Not total silence.
Moments of conversation, moments of talk. But a different pace, a
Walker Evans, Fireplace, Tenant Farm-
house, Hale County , Alabama, 1936.
151 Robert Coles
different rhythm, a different something. So you have to do that in the
way the words come across on a page. Not quotes, but maybe you can
write as if coming out of them as part of their thinking. If you can
somehow deliver on the page that something inside them, fine.
For example, one meets a woman, Mrs. Lopez, by name. She tells
you how she bakes. You pretend to be interested in baking. You've
never been interested in baking before, although your wife has been
baking all these years as has your mother before her. Who wants to
be interested in baking? You can buy a loaf of bread. Mrs. Lopez is the
greatest bread-maker in northern New Mexico. Certainly in the town
of Touchas. Okay. A phony, dishonest ingratiating effort to get to
know this woman? Eventually, in the midst of baking bread one hears
a story about her children. A photographer has taken some pictures
of her. She's standing there and looks — some people think she looks
old and tired, some people think there's dignity to her, some people
think that she's extraordinary. She tells me a story about two people,
her two sons, and how she came to know that they had died, in war,
one of them, and then another. One hears that story and can't forget
it, goes back to it, writes about it. A photographer has spent time with
her and has pictures, another Mrs. Lopez. And there we are.
I don't think I have in my mind that words and photographs are
"the thing" itself. There is no such thing as "the thing" itself; it is an
abstraction that you and I use. I do not speak of photography as any-
thing closer to some ultimate reality than some words. I say that pho-
tography is another way of being.
152 Robert Coles
Barrell, Sarah Webb. "The Picture
Picker." Camera 35, February/
Fondiller, Harvey V. "Magnum:
Image and Reality." 35mm Photog-
raphy, Winter 1976.
Jury, Mark. "A Talk with John Mor-
ris." New York Photographer, June/
Morris, John G. "Photographers Ran
the War." Popular Photography,
— . "People Are People the World
Over." Ladies' Home Journal, April
1948-March 1949. (12 articles)
— . "Confessions of a Picture Editor."
New York: Photo Notes, Spring
— . "Let's Make Honest Pictures." Mod-
ern Photography, June 1950.
— . "An Appreciation : Robert Capa,
Werner Bischof." New York :
Infinity, May 1954.
— . "Magnum Photos — An Interna-
tional Cooperative." New York:
U.S. Camera 1954.
— . "Chim . . . was Chim." London :
Photography, January 1957.
— . "The World of David Seymour."
New York: Infinity, Winter 1957.
— . "Elliott Erwitt." Lucerne: Camera,
— . "Photographers Don't Think!"
Popular Photography, December
— . "The New Look in Newspapers."
National Press Photographer, June
— . "Where is the Money in Photog-
raphy?" Popular Photography,
— . "The Art of Seeing: A Guide to
Travel Photography." Holiday,
— . "This We Remember." Harper's
Magazine, September 1972.
— . "How Not to Sell Your Pictures."
Popular Photography, January
— , and Mary Adele Morris. "Your
America." Ladies' Home Journal,
"John Morris' Changing Times."
Editor & Publisher, 13 June 1970.
Conrad, Maisie and Richard. Executive
Order 9066: The Internment of
110,000 Japanese-Americans. Cam-
bridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press
for the California Historical Society,
Lange, Dorothea. First Rural Re-
habilitation Colonists, Northern
Minnesota to Matanuska Valley,
Alaska, Sailed from San Francisco,
May 1, 1935. San Francisco, 1935.
— . Dorothea Lange Looks at the Ameri-
can Country Woman: A Photo-
graphic Essay by Dorothea Lange.
Fort Worth : Amon Carter Museum,
1967. With a commentary by Beau-
— . The Making of a Documentary
Berkeley: University of California,
Bancroft Library, Regional History
Office, 1968. An interview conducted
by Suzanne Riess.
— , and Margaretta Mitchell. To a
Cabin. New York : Grossman Pub-
— , and Paul Schuster Taylor. An
American Exodus.- A Record of
Human Erosion. New York : Reynal
and Hitchcock, 1939.
— . An American Exodus-. A Record of
Human Erosion. Revised and ex-
tended edition. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1969.
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Dorothea Lange. New York: Double-
day, 1968. Introductory essay by
George P. Elliott.
Stryker, Roy Emerson, and Nancy
Wood. In This Proud Land: America
1935-1943 As Seen in the FSA Photo-
graphs. Greenwich, Connecticut:
New York Graphic Society Ltd.,
Taylor, Paul Schuster. Paul Schuster
Taylor, California Social Scientist.
mimeographed, Berkeley: Univer-
sity of California, Bancroft Library,
Regional History Office, 1973. An
interview conducted by Suzanne
Mili, Gjon. The Magic of the Opera.
New York: F. H. Praeger, Inc., 1960.
— . Picasso's Third Dimension. Friton
— . "Gjon Mili Photographs Ballet
Dancers at High Speed." Life, 19
153 Suggested Readings
— . "World Charter." Life, 23 July 1945.
Day-by-day coverage of the United
Nations at the San Francisco con-
— . "The World of Sean O'Casey." Life,
26 July 1954.
— . "Queen of Cathedrals." Life, 15 De-
cember 1961. An expressionist essay
— . "The Relentless Spectre of Brecht."
Life, 18 September 1964.
— . "Mr. B. Talks about Ballet." Life,
11 June 1965.
. 'Serenade to Ninety Years of Great-
ness." Life, 11 November 1966.
— . "An American Masterpiece." Life,
3 October 1969. A translation into
photographs of Jerome Robbins'
ballet, "Dancers at a Gathering."
— . Jamming the Blues, 1944.
— . Raoul Dufy Paints, New York, 1950
— . Casals, Prades Festival, 1950
— . Jean Babilee, Dancer, 1951 (4 min.)
— . Salvator Dali, 1951 (6 min.)
— . Stomping for Mili, Brubeck Jazz
Quartet, 1955 (10 min.)
— . Eisenstadt Photographs "The Tall
Man." 1955 (15 min.)
— . "Tempest," filmmaking on location,
1958 (15 min.)
— . Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photogra-
pher, 1958 (3 min.)
— . Hommage to Picasso, 1967 (6 min.)
Bischof, Werner, Robert Frank,
and Pierre Verger, lndiens pas
morts. Text by Georges Arnaud.
Paris: Editions Robert Delpire, 1956.
English edition: lncas to Indians.
Frank, Robert. Les Americains.
Edited by Robert Delpire. Paris,
— . The Americans. American edition.
New York: Aperture, Inc., Gross-
man Publishers, 1959, 1969. With an
introduction by Jack Kerouac.
— . Pull My Daisy. Text by Jack
Kerouac. New York : Grove Press,
— . The Lines of My Hand. Los Angeles :
Lustrum Press, 1972. Japanese
edition: Tokyo: Kazuhiko Moto-
Green, Jonathan, ed. The Snapshot.
Aperture, vol. 19, no. 1. New York :
Aperture, Inc., 1974.
Bennett, E. "Black and White are
the Colors of Robert Frank." Aper-
ture, vol. 9, no. 1, 1961, pp. 20-22.
Deschin, J. "Coney Island." Camera,
50, 1971, pp. 19-25.
Frank, Robert. "The Congressional."
Fortune, November 1955, pp. 118-122.
With text by Walker Evans.
— . "Photographs." Aperture, vol. 9,
no. 1, 1961, pp. 4-19.
— . "Bus Ride Through New York: the
Bridge from Photography to Cine-
matography." Camera, 45, 1966,
— . "Films: Entertainment Shacked up
with Art." Arts 41, 1967, p. 23.
— . "Photographs of Women." Camera,
51, 1972, p. 32.
Gibson, Ralph. "Review of The Amer-
icans." Artforum 8, 1970, p. 92.
"John Simon Guggenheim Memorial
Foundation Fellows in Photography
1937-1965." Camera, 45, 1966, p. 5.
Still/3. "Dialogue between Robert
Frank and Walker Evans." New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.
Stott, W., "Walker Evans, Robert
Frank and the Landscape of Disso-
ciation." ArtsCanada, 31, 1974, pp.
"The Street." Camera, 48, 1969, pp. 6-13.
— . Pull My Daisy, 1959-60.
— . The Sin of Jesus, 1961.
— . OK End Here, 1963.
— . Me and My Brother, 1965-68.
— . Conversations in Vermont, 1969.
— . Life Raft Earth, 1970.
— . About Me— A Musical about my
Life in New York, 1971.
— . "An Interview with Frederick Wise-
man." in Levin, G Roy. Documen-
tary Explorations: 15 Interviews
with Film-Makers. Garden City :
Anchor Press, Doubleday & Co.,
— . "An Interview with Frederick Wise-
man." in Rosenthal, Alan. The New
Documentary in Action: A Case-
book in Film Making. Berkeley and
Los Angeles : University of Cali-
fornia Press, 1972.
Graham, John. " 'There Are No Sim-
ple Solutions' : Frederick Wiseman
on Viewing Film." Film Journal,
Spring 1971, pp. 44-47. An interview.
Handleman, Janet. "An Interview
with Frederick Wiseman." Film
Library Quarterly, Summer 1970,
Mamber, Stephen, "The New Docu-
mentaries of Frederick Wiseman."
Cinema, 6, no. 1, pp. 33-40.
Mc Williams, Donald E. "Frederick
Wiseman." Film Quarterly, Fall
1970, pp. 17-26.
Sullivan, Patrick J. " 'What's All the
Crym' About?' The Films of Fred-
erick Wiseman." Massachusetts
Review, Summer 1972, pp. 452-468.
— . Titicut Follies, 1967.
— . High School, 1968.
— . Law and Order, 1969.
— . Hospital, 1970.
— . Basic Training, 1971.
— . Essene, 1972.
— . Juvenile Court. 1973.
— . Primate, 1974.
— . Welfare. 1975.
— . Meat, 1976.
Friedlander, Lee and John Szarkow-
ski. E. J. Bellocq: Storyville Por-
traits. New York: The Museum of
Modern Art, 1970.
Holmes, Sam and John Szarkowski.
Photographs and Anti-Photographs:
Elliott Erwitt. Greenwich, Connec-
ticut: New York Graphic Society,
Szarkowski, John. The Idea of Louis
Sullivan. Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1956.
— . The Face of Minnesota. Minneap-
olis : University of Minnesota Press,
— . The Photographer and the Ameri-
can Landscape. New York: The
Museum of Modern Art, 1963.
— . The Photographs of Jacques Henri
Lartigue. New York : The Museum
of Modern Art, 1963.
— . Andre Kertesz: Photographer. New
York: The Museum of Modern Art,
— . The Photographer's Eye. New York:
The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.
— . Walker Evans. New York : The
Museum of Modern Art, 1971.
154 Suggested Readings
— . From the Picture Press. New York :
The Museum of Modern Art, 1973.
— . Looking at Photographs: 100 Pic-
tures from the Collection of The
Museum of Modern Art. New York :
The Museum of Modern Art, 1973.
— . "Atget's Trees." in One Hundred
Years of Photographic History:
Essays in Honor of Beaumont New-
hall. Edited by Van Deren Coke.
Albuquerque: University of New
Mexico Press, 1975.
— , and Shoji Yamagishi, eds. New Jap-
anese Photography. New York: The
Museum of Modern Art, 1974.
Winogrand, Garry. The Animals.
Afterward by John Szarkowski.
New York : The Museum of Modern
Szarkowski, John. "Photographing
Architecture." Art in America, no.
2, 1959, pp. 84-90.
— . "Photography and the Mass Media."
Aperture 13, 1967, pp. 182-184.
— . "A Different Kind of Art." New
York Times Magazine, 13 April 1975.
Hicks, Wilson. Words and Pictures.
Arno Press, 1973.
Smith, W. Eugene, and Aileen M.
Minamata. New York: Holt, Rine-
hart and Winston, 1975.
W. Eugene Smith.- Photographs and
Notes. An Aperture Monograph.
New York: Aperture, Inc., 1969.
Smith, W. Eugene. "Country Doctor."
Life. 20 September 1948. pp. 115-126.
— . "Spanish Village." Life, 9 April 1951,
— . "Nurse Midwife." Life, 3 December
1951, pp. 134-145.
— . "A Man of Mercy." Life, 15 Novem-
ber 1954, pp. 161-172.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpreta-
tion. New York: Delta Books, Dell
Publishing Company, 1966.
— . Death Kit. New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 1967.
— . Styles of Radical Will. New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.
— . Duet for Cannibals. New York :
Viking Press, 1970.
— . Brother Carl. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1974.
— . On Photography. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, forthcoming.
— . "On Photography." New York Re-
view of Books, 18 October 1973, p. 59.
— . "Freak Show." New York Review of
Books, 15 November 1973. p. 13.
— . "Shooting America." New York Re-
view of Books, 18 April 1974, p. 17.
— . "Photography: the Beauty Treat-
ment." New York Review of Books,
28 November 1974, p. 35.
— . "Fascinating Fascism." New York
Review of Books, 6 February 1975,
— . "Photography in Search of Itself."
New York Review of Books, 20 Jan-
uary 1977, p. 53.
— . Duett for kannibaler (Duet for
— . Brother Carl, 1971.
— . Promised Lands, 1974.
Penn, Irving. Moments Preserved.
New York : Simon and Schuster,
— . Worlds in a Small Room. New York:
Grossman Publishers, 1974.
Vogue magazine, 1943 to the present.
Coles, Robert. The Desegration of
Southern Schools. New York : New
York Anti-Defamation League of
B'nai Brith, 1963.
— . Children of Crisis: A Study of Cour-
age and Fear. Boston: Atlantic-
Little, Brown and Company, May
— . Dead End School. Boston: Atlantic-
Little, Brown, April 1968.
— . The Grass Pipe. Boston : Atlantic-
Little, Brown, April, 1969.
— . Still Hungry in America. Photo-
graphs by Al Clayton. World Pub-
lishing — New American Library,
— . The Image is You. Edited by Donald
Erceg. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin,
— . Wages of Neglect. Chicago : Quad-
rangle Press, October 1969.
— . Uprooted Children: The Early Lives
of Migrant Farmers. Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press,
— . The Middle Americans. Photo-
graphs by Jon Erikson. Boston:
Atlantic-Little, Brown, June 1970.
— . Teachers and the Children of Pov-
erty. Washington: The Potomac In-
stitute, June 1970.
— . Drugs and Youth: Medical, Psy-
chiatric and Legal Facts. Liveright
Publishing, June 1970.
— . Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His
Work. Boston: Atlantic-Little,
Brown, November 1970.
— . The Geography of Faith: Conver-
sations between Daniel Berrigan.
when Underground, and Robert
Coles. Boston: Beacon Press,
— . Migrants, Sharecroppers and
Mountaineers. Volume II of Chil-
dren of Crisis. Boston: Atlantic-
Little, Brown, January 1972.
— . The South Goes North. Volume III
of Children of Crisis. Boston: Atlan-
tic-Little, Brown, January 1972.
— . Saving Face. Boston: Atlantic-Little,
Brown, March 1972.
— . Farewell to the South. Boston :
Atlantic-Little, Brown, July 1972.
— . A Spectacle Unto the World Cath-
olic Worker Movement. New York:
Viking Press, June 1973.
— . Riding Free. Boston: Atlantic-Little,
Brown, September 1973.
— . The Old Ones of New Mexico.
Albuquerque : University of New
Mexico Press, December 1973.
— . The Darkness and the Light. Photo-
graphs by Doris Ulmann.New York:
Aperture, Inc., July 1974.
— . The Buses Roll. New York : W. W.
Norton and Company, October
— . Irony in the Mind's Life: Essays on
Novels by James Agee, Elizabeth
Bowen, and George Eliot. Char-
lottesville : University of Virginia
— . Headsparks. Boston: Atlantic-Little,
Brown, April 1975.
— . William Carlos Williams: The
Knack of Survival in America. New
Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University
Press, July 1975.
— . The Mind's Fate. Boston : Atlantic-
Little, Brown, August 1975.
O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and
Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 1957.
Coles, Robert. "Looking and Listen-
ing." Aperture, Vol. 19, no. 4, 1975.
155 Suggested Readings
Arnold Crane, pp. 5, 7 (collection E.P.
Donald Dietz, pp. 96, 122 bottom.
Larry Edwards, pp. 12, 26, 52, 66.
Stephen Frank, pp. 110, 122 top, 138.
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Aus-
tin, Texas, p. 23, Okamoto.
Library of Congress, Farm Security Ad-
ministration files, pp. 143 bottom, 150.
Magnum Photos, Inc., New York, p. 22.
Linda Mahoney, p. 78 top.
The Museum of Modern Art, Depart-
ment of Public Information, pp. 82, 83.
New York Times, p. 23, Lien.
The Oakland Museum, Art Depart-
ment, Oakland, California, pp. 27, 28, 31
bottom, 32, 36, 37, 40 top left.
Time-Life Picture Agency, © Time, Inc.,
pp. 19, 20.
Compix UPI News Pictures, p. 115
Wide World Photos, Inc., p. 15, Fass,
Adams, Browne, Ut; p. 23, Atkins.
157 Photo Credits
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